Monday, February 22, 2010

Fantasy Baseball Preview 2010 (Part 1 of 6)

Fantasy Baseball Preview 2010 – A Six Part Series

For those who played fantasy baseball in 2009, we witnessed an unusually robust crop of young players that hadn’t graced Major League Baseball in years. While one can’t complain about a talent pool being richer than before, fantasy fans will have more worthwhile players who, thanks to their unique individual skill sets, will look better on fantasy owners’ rosters.

The following are six different sets of players, grouped accordingly.

The first group is a collection of unknown talent that was completely off the fantasy radar until last season, and is now comprised of people to at least keep an eye on, if not target immediately.

The second group is a set of players that were on our fantasy radar prior to 2009, performed well last year, and that we should now target as fantasy studs.

Third is a list of established veterans who had unexpectedly amazing seasons, but draw speculation as to whether they can repeat their success from 2009.

The fourth group is a collection of young, talented ballplayers who hit a stumbling block in their road to stardom last season. Some of these players’ levels of production suffered as a result of injury or circumstance, while others simply had the shortcomings in their game exposed by the league.

Fifth is a list of players who had served baseball fantasy nation admirably for the duration of their illustrious careers, but should now be crossed off must-have lists due to declining skills, injury, or retirement. Consider this a fantasy eulogy to the players for years of service to fantasy baseball.

The final collection is a group of young players who you may either not have heard of yet, or have not deemed to be worthy of fantasy consideration…until this season. Store this last group of names into your mental archives, as these mid-to-late round sleepers (or mid-season pickups) could provide the statistical boost that wins you your league.

Group 1 (Where Did You Come From, and Where Have You Been All My Life?)

David Aardsma (RP, Sea) – After former closer JJ Putz left Seattle, Brandon Morrow inherited Putz's job in spring training. When Morrow failed to consistently put out ninth-inning fires after the season started, Aardsma took over and never looked back, accumulating 38 saves in 42 opportunities. One of the biggest nuggets of 2009 Waiver Wire Gold, Aardsma should get at least as many save chances with the improved Seattle pitching staff in front of him and defense behind him.

Elvis Andrus (SS, Rangers) – Good for 30-40 steals, Andrus’ glove will keep him in the lineup, albeit more towards the eight or nine-hole. Regardless, his unique skill set works well within fantasy baseball: speed, job security, and upside at a position thin with talent. Elvis needs to improve his plate discipline, work the count, and pick up a few more walks in order to be more than a mid-to-late-ish round pick.

Andrew Bailey (RP, A’s) – Displayed dynamite poise for a rookie, as the All-Star served as one of the few bright spots for Oakland last year. Although Joey Devine, the A’s projected 2009 preseason closer, is scheduled to come back from Tommy John surgery, Bailey’s job as ninth-inning specialist figures to be safe. His only downside is the team he pitches for, which would be lucky to win 75 games. However, given the lightweight Oakland lineup, it stands to reason that most of their wins will be narrow victories requiring Bailey to retire the last batch of batters.

Gordon Beckham (3B / 2B, White Sox) – The White Sox 1st round pick in 2008 provides a nice all-around presence whose eligibility will change from 3B/SS to 3B/2B. Good at everything but statistically great at nothing, Becks is more of a solid everyday contributor (I label these types of guys “spiritual” or “clubhouse” leaders) in several categories than a one-category stud who will carry your team. That said, he provides clutch at bats (.348 BA w/ RISP & 2 out, .400 w/ bases loaded), his all-out hustle style of play is fun to watch, and he’s just entering his second season! There are certainly worse second basemen / middle infielders you could draft.

Chris Coghlan (OF, Marlins) – The National League Rookie of the Year was a base hit and run scoring machine for the Marlins in the second half. His solid approach at the plate makes him a candidate for continued success in 2010, but for fantasy purposes, he doesn’t bring a lot of power or speed to the table. Assuming he maintains his spot atop the Marlins’ batting order, Coghlan will be a nice source of runs and hits. Unfortunately, he’ll only be outfield eligible, which makes him not much more than an OF4 or OF5.

Scott Feldman (SP, Tex) – One of the most unforeseen 17 game winners in the history of the game, the converted reliever was a direct beneficiary of Ranger team president Nolan Ryan’s philosophy shift, which was to stretch out the Texas starting pitchers’ innings to increase their endurance. If he pitches as well at home as he did on the road (12-4 record in 2009) with the vaunted Texas lineup providing run support, he could put up similar wins totals. However, given that Feldman isn’t a power pitcher, the 27 year-old’s margin for error is smaller than other pitchers who can simply overpower batters with filthy stuff.

Tommy Hanson (SP, Atl) – Hanson’s fan base and 2009 fantasy owners will argue that he got hosed in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. At 6’6”/220, Hanson has the build, the confidence, and the repertoire to remain a fixture in Atlanta’s rotation for years to come. Draft him as a good SP3, or a dynamite SP4. Just don’t be shocked if the young hurler’s innings are limited towards the latter half of the season.

J.A. Happ (SP, Phi) – The postseason-tested 27 year-old, who finished in the top-5 voting for ROY, had a stellar season with a 12-4 record and a 2.93 ERA. A workhorse who is capable of going the distance any given night, Happ benefits from a powerful Phillies lineup that provides gobs of run support and great defense. His ERA shouldn’t be expected to stay under 3.00 this year, but Happ could again provide ample wins and strikeouts.

Garrett Jones (1B/OF, Pirates) – The monster HR/AB numbers Garrett posted in just 82 games of 2009 left Pirate fans “Jonesing” for more. As he is envisioned to serve as one of the cornerstones of the rebuilding Pirates’ future, Jones will play either right field or first base, and will likely be eligible at both positions for fantasy purposes. If he can hit 21 HRs in a half-season, Jones should garner mid-round attention in his first full year in Pittsburgh.

Andrew McCutcheon (OF, Pit) – Blessed with a great power/speed combination, McCutchen was handed the starting centerfield job when Nyjer Morgan was traded to the Nationals. The 22 year-old rewarded the Pirates by hitting 12 homers (eight in August) with 22 steals. Although McCutcheon has a penchant for streaky play, he could serve as a valuable asset nonetheless, especially in head-to-head leagues.

Miguel Montero (C. Ari) – At a position as talent-starved as catcher, Montero provided a huge boost for those prescient enough to add him as a C2 in July. Playing in Arizona limits Montero’s exposure, so you could get Montero several rounds later than Jorge Posada even though they’ll post similar numbers. Montero tore up the minors before he got called up, so his offensive output isn’t completely unforeseen. If Montero is your second catcher this year, your team will be in great shape behind the plate.

Nyjer Morgan (OF, Was) – Morgan can thank the Pirates' front office for the trade to DC that revived his career. He became instant BFFs with those who picked up or owned Morgan in the second half given his bountiful flurry of steals that put many owners in the catbird seat in their respective leagues (well, that’s what happened in mine). The 42 bags he swiped in 2009 illustrate Morgan’s upside, but his puny power is more akin to Juan Pierre than Juan Gonzalez.

Leo Nunez (RP, Fla) – Another example of why one doesn’t need to spend early draft picks on closers, Nunez took over the closer job after Matt Lindstrom (now on Houston) suffered one of his many injuries. Although Florida went ahead and signed Mike ”back-from-the-dead” McDougal, Nunez was assured by Marlins brass that the job is still his to lose. Aside from last year, Nunez lacks closing experience, so draft Leo in the latter rounds as your last closer. But don’t be shocked if he hits a bump or two in the road during 2010, and gives up a few saves to McDougal.

Ben Zobrist (2B, TB) – Although his monster season came out of nowhere, Zobrist has the right players hitting around him to again produce a similar level of production as he did in 2009. Given that he will be the everyday second baseman in 2010 after the Rays traded Akinori Iwamura to Pittsburgh, Zobrist may benefit from having a steady job instead of being a jack-of-all-trades utility player. In either case, Zobrist offers rare run production at second base, but proceed with caution, as he lacks a significant track record. I wouldn’t draft Zobrist before more proven commodities at 2B like Brandon Phillips or Brian Roberts.

Fantasy Baseball Preview 2010 (Part 2 of 6)

Group 2: (So THIS Is Why I’ve Heard So Much About This Guy!)

Shin Shoo Choo (OF, Cle) – The multi-faceted Choo figures to be the best position player to come out of South Korea yet. Always able to hit for a good batting average, Choo put together a nice 20/20 campaign that went unnoticed in the Indians’ disastrous 2009 season. If he can hit .300, swipe 20 bags, and post an OPS near .900 again, grab Choo as a solid OF3.

Andre Ethier (OF, LAD) – Serving as Mr. Clutch for the Dodgers in 2009 (.362 BA in late-inning pressure situations with runners on base), Ethier broke out in a big way, as the Dodgers desperately needed production after Manny Ramirez got suspended for 50 games. Although Ethier played okay without Manny’s protection behind him in the batting order, Andre is a much more effective run producer when Manny hits after him. As Manny’s abilities decline, one will have to wait and see if pitchers’ fear factor towards Ramirez remains, and whether Ethier will continue to see as many fastballs. Furthermore, Ethier was a liability against left-handed pitching last season, hitting only .194. With Dodger stadium being a notorious pitcher’s ballpark, I’ll let someone else in my Los Angeles-based fantasy league overpay for Ethier.

Zack Greinke (SP, KC) – The fact that Greinke pitches for the god-awful Royals shouldn’t deter you too much from landing this unique talent who battled back from social anxiety disorder to win the AL Cy Young Award in 2009. The staggering improvement in Greinke’s approach and resulting numbers cannot be ignored, and he should be drafted as the fourth or fifth overall starting pitcher with confidence. In spite of the staff ace’s 2.16 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and 242 whiffs, Kansas City finished tied for last place in the AL Central in 2009. That said, the Royals are a young team with upside, and they have a great closer in Joakim Soria who can effectively shut the door on Greinke’s stellar outings. Last but not least, Greinke is still only 26, and just entering his prime. Scary.

Aaron Hill (2B, Tor) – Hill busted out beyond all expectations in 2009 after he was sidelined by a concussion in 2008. Formerly known as a doubles hitter, Hill swatted more homers (36) last season than he had in his first four years in the majors combined! While Chase Utley will cost you a first-round pick, you can probably get Hill, who proved that he can put up similar numbers to Utley, in the fourth or fifth round. The market for power-hitting second basemen who get 700 plate appearances in a season is remarkably thin. If you have a bopper like Hill at second base while using a early-ish pick, your team will have a significant statistical advantage over most other second basemen over the course of the season, allowing more overall flexibility for your team.

Adam Lind (OF, Tor) – This highly touted prospect finally broke out with a monster season in 2009, and will serve as a franchise cornerstone while the young talent around Lind continues to develop. As Lind plays at least half of his games as a DH in hitter-friendly Toronto, he figures to be a good candidate to stay healthy due to less wear and tear from diving for and chasing down balls in the outfield.

Carlos Marmol (RP, Cubs) – His development took a couple of years and some grooming, but it looks like Marmol is finally the man for saves on the North Side. Kevin Gregg, who served as Cubs closer for the majority of 2009, left the club to sign a free agent deal with Toronto. If Marmol can cut down on his walks (65 in 74 innings pitched in ’09 - yikes), the 27 year-old could prove to be one of the best value picks at closer this year.

Kendry Morales (1B. LAA) – The Cuban defector who joined the Angels in 2005 had to wait until Mark Teixeira left town so that he could finally take over full-time duties at first base. 34 homers, 108 RBI later, Morales has lived up to the hype, and in spite of said hype, nobody expected Morales to establish himself as such a force in his first year playing as a regular in 2009. Although Kendry no longer has Chone Figgins or Vlad Guerrero hitting in front of him, he could still deliver big-time numbers in the middle of the Angels’ lineup.

Mark Reynolds (3B, Ari) - His incredible 2009 seems impossible to repeat given how high his batting average was for most of the season compared to his prodigious strikeout rate. 223 K’s? Very impressive…if he were a starting pitcher! The 44-homer upside he displayed last year makes him a possible target to be overvalued, as he simply has too many holes in his swing, doesn’t walk enough, and lacks extensive protection in the Arizona lineup. Let Reynolds’ 2009 owner overpay for him in 2010.

Wandy Rodriguez (SP, Hou) – The Wandyman stepped up in 2009 to take over as the best starting pitcher on the Astros. With a revamped Houston bullpen comprised of injury-prone Matt Lindstrom and B-minus closer Brandon Lyon, and a defensively adequate Houston team shagging balls behind Wandy, a second consecutive excellent season may not be in the cards for Rodriguez.

Pablo Sandoval (C, SF) – Panda Bear provided a sparkling .330 BA and signs of life in the San Francisco lineup. His owners licked their lips throughout the season as Sandoval flirted with catcher eligibility, but ultimately fell a couple games short. Sandoval’s excellent batting average and solid-but-not-spectacular power and run production will help your team. But since the Giants’ batting lineup is hardly loaded with thumpers, Sandoval’s ceiling is somewhat limited.

Troy Tulowitzki (SS, Col) – His amazing second half made his owners forget how awful Tulowitzki played in the first couple months of 2009. After modifying his batting stance a bit, he now figures to be a valued fixture in Denver for years to come. One may have trouble using a first or second-round pick on a shortstop not named Hanley, but after his 32-92-101-20-.297 campaign in 2009, you won’t get a chance to Draft Tulo too low again.

Justin Upton – (OF, Ari) – A 2009 breakout season is only the start of a beautiful career run for the younger Upton. A five-tool specimen who is only starting to realize his 30/30 potential at the major league level, Justin could be a first or second round pick as soon as 2011. Barring injury, this may be the last preseason that he could still be viewed as a value pick, so hop on the Upton train in the fourth or fifth round and watch the trade offers come en masse for the All Star as soon as the season starts.

Joey Votto (1B, Cin) – Votto established himself as a legitimate fantasy stud who can hit for ample power, average and provide run production. Although Votto ranked fourth in MLB in OPS (.981) to go along with a .322 BA, he is rarely mentioned in the elite class of first basemen. At this stage in his career, one can compare Votto to a younger Todd Helton, i.e. a great contact hitter with good power that plays in one of the best hitter’s ballparks in the baseball. Don’t be afraid to reach a little for Votto in the fifth or sixth round on draft day – the 26 year-old is very good.

Adam Wainwright (SP, StL) – The 2009 Cy Young runner-up was awesome from April to October. Good offense, solid pitching mechanics, and great coaching should help to ensure another solid season for the 28 year-old. Assuming the Cardinal bullpen provides the same stellar support in 2010, Wainwright should again flirt with 20 wins. One note of caution: Wainwright pitched over 100 innings more than he did in 2008, so don’t be shocked if fatigue causes him to become more hittable after the All-Star break.

Jason Werth (OF, Phi) – Finally given a full-time gig after seven injury-plagued years in the National League, Werth was one of the most pleasant surprises to come out of the NL East in 2009. Situated in the middle of a potent Phillies lineup, Werth has the protection surrounding him, the right home ballpark as well as the all-around skill set to flourish for another year in Philadelphia.

Fantasy Baseball Preview 2010 (Part 3 of 6)

Group 3: (Can He Do It Again?)

Jason Bartlett (SS, TB) – By his fourth year in the league, Bartlett had matured into a defensive-minded shortstop that was good for a bushel of steals per year. In his sixth season, Bartlett shocked the baseball world with 14 homers, 90 runs scored, 30 steals, and a .320 average. If this is Bartlett’s new skill set from this point forward, the 30 year-old should be a good all-around shortstop who can put up Jeter-esque numbers without costing you a Jeter-esque fifth round pick.

Heath Bell (RP, SD) – Bell made a seamless transition to stud closer after Trevor Hoffman left for Milwaukee. Although Bell had Hall of Fame shoes to fill, he stepped up to lead the National League with 42 saves. While he would stand to get even more save opportunities by pitching for a better team, the penny-pinching Padres could already be shopping the 32 year-old, as well as anyone else on the team attracting interest, for anything younger and cheaper…okay, Padre rant aside, Bell is a very reliable closer, but presents risk if he’s traded to a contender and is placed into a setup role.

Russell Branyan (IB, Cle) – The 34 year-old held out a little too long for a multi-year contract, and should have re-signed with the Mariners when they extended him an offer after the 2009 regular season concluded. As it now stands, Branyan joined Cleveland on a paltry one-year deal to back up uber-prospect Matt LaPorta, and possibly DH against righties. If Branyan hadn’t suffered a herniated disc in his back in August, he might have had a crack at 40 homers and gotten the big free agent payday he wanted. As things currently stand, Branyan’s long swing creates a small margin for error, as his career .234 batting average will attest. Don’t get sucked into one good year amid a career of swings and misses.

Marlon Byrd (OF, Cubs) – Although he’s headed for the so-called Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field, are there friendlier confines in MLB than the launching pad he left behind in Arlington, Texas? Byrd should have ample RBI opportunities with Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez hitting in front of him, but last year was the first time he received more than 500 at bats in a season in his eight-year career. Byrd isn’t stellar defensively, and his move to the National League eliminates the possibility of DH duty. If you believe Byrd will flourish in the National League, then take a shot. Personally, I’m staying away if 20 homers in 547 at bats is the 32 year-old’s upside.

Jorge De la Rosa (SP, Col) – Jorge had a nice season pitching for playoff-bound Colorado, and has shown marked improvement in almost every pitching category in each of his last four seasons. Having recently signed another one-year deal with the Rockies, De la Rosa should be plenty motivated to pitch his heart out this season in an attempt to secure a long-term deal at the end of 2010. Finally, Colorado isn’t the hellhole for pitchers it was ten years ago, as some of the Mile High mystique seems to have worn off with the decrease in scoring in recent seasons.

JD Drew (OF, Bos) – Thought to be on the downside of his disappointing career, Drew played as if it were a contract season with one of his highest OPS ever. While 68 RBI from an outfielder who doesn’t get steals is hardly worth salivating over, Drew is streaky enough so that he may get hot and provide your team with a solid OF5 when one of your other outfielders gets hurt. JD sits against most lefties, which helps to keep his batting average and OPS up, and his name off the disabled list.

Ryan Franklin (RP, StL) – Widely believed to be the biggest surprises of the 2009 season, Franklin titillated both fantasy owners as well as his own coaches with 38 saves and a 1.92 ERA. He’ll be counted on for a repeat performance in 2010 on an elite contender in St. Louis. Since he lacks a proven track record, Franklin could fall to the middle rounds, where he would be a bargain.

Frank Francisco (RP, Tex) – For someone who made three trips to the disabled list, Francisco had a pretty good year with 25 saves and a 1.11 WHIP. The 30 year-old righty is a legitimate talent, but has two factors working against him: 2009 proved that Francisco can be injury-prone, he pitches for Texas, a team that, with so much offensive talent, has a tendency to win big (thereby creating fewer save opportunities).

Brian Fuentes (RP, LAA) – Although he had a career-high 48 saves, Fuentes struggled at times with his command, and was shaky towards the end of the season. Furthermore, the Angels signed former Detroit stopper Fernando Rodney, who figures to cut into Fuentes’ save totals. Traditionally, left-handed closers need to be dynamite every night in order to keep their job as ninth-inning specialists, and Fuentes did not have the stuff to get the job done as 2009 wound down. However, Rodney can be just as shaky as Fuentes in spite of his 37-save season a year ago, so take a wait-and-see approach as to how the Angel bullpen situation shakes out towards the end of spring training, and in the meantime, don’t spend more than a late-round flyer on Fuentes if everyone else in your league is scared off by the Angels’ closer situation.

Raul Ibanez (OF, Phi) – The 37 year-old made a favorable impression on Philadelphia fans (not always an easy task), and posted career numbers with the protection of a mighty Phillie lineup he never had in Seattle or Kansas City. While Rauuul! has had a solid track record of production, and lit up the stat sheet in the first half of ‘09, one should expect a little regression in his second season how that National League pitchers have a better handle on how to pitch to Ibanez.

Brandon Inge (3B, Tigers) – Inge started 2009 off gangbusters, but knee problems derailed his production after the All-Star Break. Further more, he’ll no longer be catcher eligible, which pretty much kills his fantasy value unless you need a third baseman who will sap your BA in exchange for some pop. Mixed leaguers would be well-served to keep Inge out of their starting lineup unless injuries create depth issues.

Jason Kubel (OF, Twins) – Kubel, whom I affectionately started calling “Turtle” based on his uncanny resemblance to Jerry Ferrara’s character on Entourage, busted out in a big way in 2009 with improved stats across the board. With the heart of the Twins’ lineup intact for the next several years coupled with the addition of 564-HR legend Jim Thome, the 28 year-old could have even more in store down the road if he can find a way to hit left-handed pitching (.644 OPS) nearly as well as right-handed pitching (1.013).

Derrek Lee (1B. Cubs) – D-Lee provided a rare ray of sunshine for an otherwise overcast Cubs team in 2009. Many skeptics were convinced that Lee’s days of hitting 35 HR and amassing 110+ RBI ended five years ago, but he proved that his surgically-repaired right wrist was fully healed. While I wouldn’t expect the 34 year-old to repeat last season’s numbers, I would gladly take the durable Lee as a middle-round corner infielder once the elite options are gone.

Joel Piniero (SP, StL) - Coming of five consecutive awful seasons, Pineiro finally took renowned Cardinal pitching coach Dave Duncan’s instruction to heart, and revived his career with 15 wins, a 3.49 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP as he headed into free agency. The Angels signed the 31 year-old to a two-year contract worth $16M. While Pineiro was so bad in his previous seasons, his move back to the American League scares me, so I’m staying away, as his lackluster strikeout totals are a detriment in 5x5 leagues.

Fantasy Baseball Preview 2010 (Part 4 of 6)

Group 4: (What Happened to …? I Thought He Was Supposed To Be the Next Big Thing!)

Nelson Cruz (OF, Tex) – One would have trouble complaining about a 33 HR, 20 SB season from an up-and-coming talent like Cruz, but occasional streakiness left his owners wondering what could have been if Cruz had played more and not struck out so much. If Nelson can balance out his home/road splits (.286/.232 BA), cut down on his whiffs (118), and play with a little more consistency, he could easily surpass 30/30 in 2010. With Marlon Byrd gone to Chicago, Cruz has right field all to himself, and stands to benefit from the return of a healthy Josh Hamilton as well as the addition of future DH Vladmir Guerrero.

Chris Davis (1B, Tex) – Davis jumped out of the gate with 17 homers in limited action as a 22 year-old rookie in 2008. As prognosticators drooled at the possibility of what he could accomplish over a full season, Davis shot up 2009 fantasy draft boards, only to strike out in 34 of his first 70 at bats last year. After he spent most of July and August in the minors, Davis showed signs of promise by hitting .284 during his late-season stint in The Show. If people remember Davis’ prodigious strikeout rate more than his age and potential, be prepared to jump on this possible value pick in the middle rounds after the elite first basemen are gone.

Stephen Drew (SS, Ari) – 2009 was a topsy-turvy season for the brothers Drew as JD was the one that exceeded expectations while Stephen underachieved. In spite of his lackluster 2008, Stephen will be 27 this season, and last season’s hamstring issue looks to be behind him. Arizona can’t be much worse than they were last year, so draft Drew as an upside pick in the middle rounds.

Yovani Gallardo (SP, Mil) – The ace of the Brewers staff pitched a complete 2009 after missing almost all of 2008. In his return, Gallardo experienced something of a regression as he logged 94 walks in spite of 204 strikeouts. If he can control his pitch counts and free passes, Gallardo has the repertoire to be a perennial All-Star.

Cole Hamels (SP, Phi) – Observors who took the 26 year-old hurler’s enormous 2008 workload into account proceeded with caution in 2009. Critics of pitching coaches who are reluctant to overwork their young pitchers need only to check out the stats from Hamels’ downturn 2009 to understand why young starting pitchers tend to be “babied” towards the end of the season. Although he pitched deep into the 2009 postseason, expect Hamels to bounce back in 2010 as he has reportedly added a fourth pitch (slider or cutter) to his arsenal.

Josh Hamilton (OF, Tex) – While 2008 could be chalked up as too good to be true, Hamilton set unfair expectations for himself by tattooing 32 homers, 130 RBI, and amassing a .305 BA. As playing center field took its toll on Hamilton’s health, he missed almost half the season with a bad back. Since the 28 year-old will play strictly right field, one can expect less wear and tear on his body through a 162-game season.

Corey Hart (OF, Mil) – Corey was a real Hartbreaker (so sorry, I couldn’t resist) for his owners coming off of two consecutive 20/20 seasons. Until he improves his undisciplined approach at the plate, his batting average, runs, and on-base percentage will suffer. Still only 28 years young headed into 2010, Hart has many years ahead of him to return to his impressive totals from two years ago.

Francisco Liriano (SP, Min) – 2006 seems a long time ago in terms of Liriano, doesn’t it? Four years ago, the southpaw took the baseball world by surprise at the age of 22 by going 12-3 with 144 strikeouts in 121 innings pitched. Since Liriano’s rookie season, most fantasy drafts have had at least one sucker hopeful enough to grab the Liriano of yore. After he tore up the Dominican Winter League in January, optimism is abound that the old (or, should I say, young) Liriano is back. With a solid Twin defense and excellent bullpen behind him, Francisco is definitely worth a mid-to-late round pick with tremendous upside.

Nate McClouth (OF, Atl) – After his stellar ’08 campaign for Pittsburgh, the Braves confidently went after Nate the Great in on hopes of having him bat leadoff and play centerfield. Things didn’t go according to plan, as a bum hamstring limited his productivity both at the plate as well as in the field. Fully healthy for 2010, McClouth should improve upon a lackluster 2009, and push his way back into the 20/20 club.

Carlos Quentin (OF, White Sox) – Quentin is coming of wrist surgery, and has indicated he is all systems go for spring training 2010. An MVP-type season in 2008 made the Arizona Diamondbacks regret trading Quentin for minor-league 1B Chris Carter (your reaction is correct, “Who?!”), but now Quentin, who recently signed a one-year contract with the ChiSox for $3.2M, is playing for a long-term deal. Grab Quentin after the supposed “elite” OFs are off the board, and you could get great value with a mid-round pick.

Alexei Ramirez (SS, White Sox) – Not-so-sexy-Alexei hit fewer HRs and RBIs than in ’08 when he had 62 more at bats. Still only 28, the Cuban has room for improvement, but his less-than-stellar on-base skills coupled with the fact that he’s moved all over the White Sox batting order limits his upside. Ramirez’ luster since he placed second in 2008 American League Rookie of the Year voting has worn off a bit, but he could be a good value pick if he bounces back.

Grady Sizemore (OF, Cle) – Speaking of 2009 first-round busts (namely, mine), Grady tried admirably to play through a sports hernia and elbow issues even though those two maladies clearly affected his performance on an Indians team that was in fire sale mode anyways. Regardless, Sizemore is 100% healthy, ready for spring training, is in his age-27 season, and will probably be undervalued headed into 2010 considering he has 40/40 potential. If he somehow, someway, falls to the third round of your draft, do not hesitate to get Grady as your OF1.

Geovany Soto (C, Cubs) – A horrendous sophomore slump not only put Soto in a platoon with Koyie Hill, but also dearly cost owners who drafted Soto as their top catcher. In an attempt to get into the best shape possible, Soto dropped 40 pounds this offseason, which should help his stamina and knees. Geo shouldn’t be as bad as he was in 2009, but a repeat of his breakout 2008 seems optimistic.

Joakim Soria (RP, KC) – Based on his 2.21 ERA and 1.13 WHIP, one wouldn’t have expected Soria to be part of Group 4. But Soria set the bar so high in 2008 with a 1.61 ERA, .86 WHIP, and 42 saves that, in hindsight, he didn’t leave much room for improvement. Furthermore, the 2009 Royals were projected to be a lot less awful than they turned out. As a result, Soria’s save opportunities were few and far between. But the young closer turns 26 this May, so his best years should still be ahead of him. Soria is likely to surpass his paltry ’09 save total, so buy low on the fearless fireballer.

Matt Wieters (C, Bal) – One of the trendier, sexier picks of preseason 2009, Wieters didn’t get consistent playing time until well into the second half of last season. Owners who overpaid but waited patiently were treated to a .362 BA from Wieters in September/October. In other words, he has shown enough upside in limited action to prove that he may be the real deal, but don’t make the same mistake by reaching too far strictly based on his potential. Personally, I’d rather take the comparable Miguel Montero in the 16th round as opposed to Wieters in the 12th.

David Wright (3B/Mets) – When the Mets moved from Shea Stadium to Citi Field in 2009, experts predicted a dropoff in home runs for many hitters in their lineup. Last season’s rash of injuries created a nightmare season for the Metropolitans. Although Wright played most of the lost season until he was plunked in the head by a fastball in September, his 10 homers and 72 RBIs were hugely disappointing considering he was a top-three pick in many fantasy leagues. The good news is that Wright ranked tops in the major leagues in BABIP (.400), so some statistical correction is due for Wright in 2010, who was arguably the unluckiest hitter in baseball last year.

Chris B. Young (OF, Ari) – The 26 year-old is another example of a prime talent whose coveted power/speed combination teased us early in his career, only to have the holes in his swing eventually get exposed by the league. Since his breakout season in 2007, Young’s OPS has declined each subsequent year. C.B. needs to cut down on his strikeouts, because a .212 BA will endear you to neither your coaches nor your fantasy owners. As Arizona’s best defensive option at center field, Young’s glove buys him job security. Take a speculative pick in the last round of your draft if you’re searching for upside, and have enough batting average to cushion Young’s negative impact.

Fantasy Baseball Preview 2010 (Part 5 of 6)

Group 5: (Well, It’s Been a Time and a Half, But…*checks watch*)

Garret Anderson (OF, Atl) – Anderson found out what life is like when you’re not batting cleanup behind Vlad Guerrero, and his numbers reflected this realization. Relegated as a fourth outfielder in Atlanta, Anderson doesn’t have much left in the tank to be considered in mixed leagues. Nostalgic Angel fans beware.

Milton Bradley (OF, Sea) – Hopefully, eight (as in, teams he’s played for) is enough! Even without his mouth, shenanigans and domestic issues getting him into doghouses across the continent, Bradley’s upside has eroded. While Milton is still a talented ballplayer, he doesn’t stay on the field to get enough at bats to warrant serious fantasy consideration. However, Seattle is not a pressure-cooker environment like previous cities Bradley has played in. So even though he now plays home games in a pitcher-friendly park, the soon-to-be 32 year-old could benefit from a change of scenery, and, possibly, an improved attitude. Only the daring should take a chance on a potential headache like Bradley as their OF5.

Carlos Delgado (1B, Free Agent) – The Mets parted ways with him, and as spring training gets underway, he has yet to find a team for 2010. Only two years removed from a 38-homer campaign, Delgado had to recently undergo a labrum reconstruction, as well as microfracture surgery on his hip socket. If all goes well (which is a big “if” for the 37 year-old), he might have a healthy two months of 2010 if someone is desperate enough to give Delgado a shot. In other words, stay far, far away.

Nomar Garciaparra (1B/3B, retired) – Red Sox Nation may play a bagpipe-laden dirge for No-Mah’s illustrious but shortened career. Before Boston's World Series run in 2004, Garciaparra gave Red Sox fans reason to cheer with his all-out style of play and clutch hitting. Subsequent stints on the Cubs, Dodgers and A’s never panned out, so remember him as the 1997 ROY who took baseball by surprise, and helped to lay the foundation for the Red Sox’ return to prominence.

Ken Griffey Jr. (DH, Sea) – It’s been a fun and occasionally injury-riddled ride, but honestly, if Ken Griffey Jr. is anything but a last-round throwaway pick by the most fervent of die-hard fans in AL-only leagues, it’s to throw away the Smash Mouth CD and and stop living in 1997. He’s a shell of a shell of his former self. Assuming the, er, “Kid” stays healthy, he could be good for 15 homers and 70 RBI in a little over 400 at bats. You can do better.

Travis Hafner (DH, Cle) – While a 25 home run bounceback season isn’t totally out of the question, Hafner’s swing has slowed to more of a fierce wave recently. Last season, he couldn’t get around on inside fastballs, a pitch he would clobber five years ago. If his back is okay, take a late-round flier, but don’t expect the return of Pronk from 2006.

Jason Isringhausen (RP, Free Agent) – Izzy maintains that he’s healthy and ready to pitch, but first he needs a job. Only time will tell whether he’s the last one who needs to be told the party’s over. At 293 career saves, Isringhausen surely wants to close out at least seven more victories before he calls it a career.

Randy Johnson (SP, Retired) – One wonders what might have never been had Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan not taken a then 28 year-old Johnson under his wing after the 1992 season and corrected his pitching mechanics. Although Randy’s pursuit of 5000 strikeouts fell short by 125, I will maintain that, all due respect to Johan Santana and Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson was the best left-handed starting pitcher I ever saw. Sayonara, Unit.

Chipper Jones (3B, Atl) – This fan favorite should no longer be considered a mixed-league option at 3B. His body prevents him from staying healthy for an entire season, and he will start getting spelled at third base more from 2010 moving forward. Count on Chipper more as a late-round reserve corner infielder if you absolutely have to have him on your squad.

Andruw Jones (DH, White Sox) – A name I will rue forever after I wasted a third-round pick on him in 2007, Jones’ putrid batting average, in spite of his HR/AB, will cause more headaches than jumps for joy. His inability to cover the outfield any longer is the reason the White Sox will use Andruw as a DH. The perfect example of an “old” 32 years old, Jones looks indifferent on some nights, and washed up on others. On a side note, nothing brought Dodger fans more closely together in 2008 than the chance to mercilessly boo Jones (signed for an appalling $36 million over two years) each time he stepped up to bat. Dodger General Manager Ned Colletti will NEVER live that free agent acquisition down.

Mike Lowell (3B, Bos) – Now that Boston signed Adrian Beltre to hold down the hot corner, Lowell will be relegated to a bench role. However, Lowell has been showcased at first base in spring training while Red Sox GM Theo Epstein attempts to deal him. As he will be 36 come Opening Day, Lowell’s best days are behind him, and given the he is still recovering from a thumb injury, look elsewhere for corner infielder help unless Lowell proved he’s healthy and gets a regular gig somewhere.

Ivan Rodriguez (C, Was) – In this downturn economy, Pudge hit paydirt by accepting a 2-year, $6 million offer to platoon with Jesus Flores and Will Nieves in Washington DC. The future Hall-of-Famer’s name may look good on paper as your second catcher, but his stats will leave something to be desired.

BJ Ryan (RP, Free Agent) – He can’t even get a minor league deal right now. His fastball is currently of the Reagan Era variety (mid-80s). Stay away, and instead reminisce about his salad days from five-to-six years ago when he struck out an average of over a batter and a half for every inning he pitched.

Gary Sheffield (OF/DH, Free Agent) – His playing career literally spans my entire fantasy career. Instead of boring you with my many Gary Sheffield trades, rants, and anecdotes, I will tell you that the 41 year-old doesn’t have much left in the tank. He may think he has a shot at 3000 hits (currently at 2689), but his defensive limitations limit him as a candidate for DH duties.

Tim Wakefield (SP, Bos) – At 43 years of age, Wakefield is still a very effective pitcher. His command of his famous knuckleball is as good as when he was a Pirate in the mid-90s. Wakefield was actually leading the American League in wins at one point near the All-Star break in 2009, but given Boston’s recent free agent acquisition of All-Star pitcher John Lackey, Wakefield’s rotation spot will probably go to up-and-comer Clay Buchholz unless Buchholz falters. Stay tuned for further developments, and only use a late-round flier on Wakefield if he’s the Red Sox fifth starter.

Fantasy Baseball Preview 2010 (Part 6 of 6)

Group 6: (I’ll Keep an Eye On This One)

Julio Borbon (OF, Tex) – Slated to be the everyday centerfielder batting leadoff for Texas, Borbon is a thief on the bases. Having swiped 19 bags in less than a third of a season, he has a chance to become this year’s Michael Bourn. Given the protection Borbon has in the Texas lineup, one can expect him to get 100 runs scored provided he stays healthy. Target Borbon in the middle rounds after the big-name stolen base threats are gone.

Wade Davis (SP, TB) – This 24 year-old prospect provides the Rays with solid depth at the back of their young pitching rotation. Although he had one horrific outing against Boston in 2009, Wade gave up three eared runs or less in each of his other five outings. Davis plays in arguably the toughest division in the AL East, but gets enough strikeouts and keeps the walks down to be a good major league pitcher. Given Tampa’s speedy defense, the acquisition of the talented Rafael Soriano to bolster the back of the bullpen, and the announcement that the youngster won’t be put on an innings limit, Davis has the pieces in place to serve as a nice late-round sleeper for the back of your rotation.

Neftali Feliz (SP, Tex) – The Dominican flamethrower has the tools to jump to the front of the AL Rookie of the Year race, and aims to open the season in Texas’ starting rotation. Still only 21 (22 in May), Feliz is anchored slightly by control issues and his inexperience. If he can continue to keep the walks down and the heater in triple digits, Feliz could be the talk of Major League Baseball by May. Grab him as a mid-to-late round prospect with high upside, but be forewarned that he probably won’t pitch 200 innings if he stays in the rotation throughout the season, as he only pitched 108 between Triple-A and Texas last season.

David Freese (3B, StL) – Freese is expected to be the Cards’ Opening Day third baseman. With four successful seasons in the minors under his belt, the 27 year-old rookie begins his major league career in a powerful lineup, and stands to benefit from having All-Stars like Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Ryan Ludwick to drive in. Monitor Freese's progress during spring training, and keep him in mind as a speculative reserve pick towards the end of your draft, as he hasn’t proven anything in the majors yet.

Carlos Gonzalez (OF, Col) – Gonzalez sucked it up as a 2008 rookie in Oakland, then came over to the Rockies in the Matt Holliday trade. Although Gonzalez struggled in his first month in Colorado, he hit .314 the rest of the regular season, batted .588 (no, that’s not a typo) in the postseason, and provided five-category success for those intrepid enough to snag him off the waiver wire. While the A's wish they had Gonzalez back considering Holliday is long gone, Car-Gon should get substantial playing time in Colorado’s outfield, and offer considerable upside as a OF4.

Jason Heyward (OF, Atl) – The 20 year-old phenom is currently in the Braves’ farm system, but has demonstrated uncanny discipline at the plate. Having excelled at each level of the minors thus far, manager Bobby Cox is considering having Heyward begin the season in Atlanta. If his immense talent translates at the big league level, Heyward stands to be a legitimate contender for National League Rookie of the Year.

Howie Kendrick (2B, LAA) – Although we’ve been discussing him as if he were a fresh-faced prospect for years now, Kendrick enters his fifth season with untapped potential. His roller coaster 2009 involved a rough start involving a .231 BA and a .281 OBP, a trip to the minors, a July callup, and a .351 BA from the point of the callup through the end of the season. Angel manager Mike Scoscia has platooned Kendrick with Maicer Izturis, but Howie is a far better offensive talent who should take playing time away from Izturis. Kendrick, who turns 27 in July, could be a shrewd under-the-radar acquisition towards the end of your draft if you still need a second baseman.

Matt LaPorta (1B, Cle) – We’ve been hearing a lot about this kid since he played with Team USA in the Beijing Olympics a couple years ago. Now 25 but coming of hip and toe surgery, LaPorta will be handed the Indians’ starting first base gig. However, the Tribe recently acquired Russell Branyan in case LaPorta is not physically or mentally ready for everyday big league action, but LaPorta has bigger upside of the two.

Cameron Maybin (OF, Fla) – Slated to hit second between Chris Coghlan and Hanley Ramirez, the Marlins’ starting center fielder has gotten a great deal of press as a major leaguer considering he hasn’t accomplished much yet. As Maybin will be just 23 in April, he has yet to come close to tapping into his 20/20 potential. Provided he plays well in spring training, keep an eye on Maybin as a possible OF5, and hope for the breakout that the Marlins envisioned when they traded for him from Detroit. Given the protection he’ll be provided in the lineup, Maybin is being given every chance to flourish.

Nolan Reimold (OF, Bal) – Baltimore Manager Dave Trembley sees Reimold as a fixture in left field for 2010. With 15 homers, eight steals and a .279 batting average in 358 at bats, the 26 year-old has both the tools and buzz to get Oriole and fantasy fans equally intrigued. Reimold’s 30-home run potential is exciting, but his impressive plate discipline is what may keep him in the lineup.

Scott Sizemore (2B, Det) – Although the Tigers flirted with the idea of offering arbitration to veteran Placido Polanco or possibly signing free agent Orlando Hudson, Jim Leyland decided to resort to the farm system, and declared the 25 year-old Sizemore his starting second baseman. Coincidentally, Sizemore’s offensive skill set is not unlike Polanco’s and Hudson’s: a fistful of homers and steals to go with a solid BA, but strictly late-round consideration at this stage.

Travis Snider (OF, Tor) – One look at the 5’11”/230 pound Snider, and visions of 40-homer seasons come to mind. After an impressive stint in a cup of coffee at the end of the 2008 season, Snider was named the Blue Jays’ 2009 opening day left fielder. The then-21 year-old struggled in Toronto, but dominated Triple-A after he was sent down. When he was recalled in August, Snider played a bit better, but not as well as the year before. He now faces starting 2010 in the minors, and will need a big spring training to stay with Toronto. Still, he has enough upside to stash on your reserve with a late pick.

Drew Stubbs (OF, Cin) – Stubbs was forced into major league action after a flurry of injuries hit the Reds’ outfield in the second half of 2009. Upon his callup, Stubbs responded with eight home runs and 10 steals in 180 at bats. While he has proven to be a legitimate threat on the basepaths in the minors, he doesn’t have a solid track record for hitting for power, having hit only as many as 12 homers for Single-A Dayton in 2007. Stubbs shouldn’t be counted on as a power/speed threat, but if he hits more than 15 to go along with 30-40 steals in 2010, consider any additional run production gravy.

Joel Zumaya (RP, Det) – Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…but Joel Zumaya is healthy! Unfortunately for his closer aspirations, the Tigers went out and got the best free agent relief pitcher available in Jose Valverde. Even when Zumaya isn’t injured and has his blazing 99+ MPH heater humming, he hasn’t been able to put it all together long enough to stay on the fantasy radar. But If Valverde experiences a rough transition to the American League, take a flier on Zumaya.