Fantasy Baseball Top 100: 61-80

Continuing the release of my initial listing of the Top 100 fantasy baseball players, here are players 80 through 61 (age in parentheses):

80. Daisuke Matsuzaka – Boston Red Sox, SP (27):
Met and you could probably even say surpassed expectations in the first half (3.79 ERA), but did a complete 180 after the break (5.07 ERA). All in all, he put together an impressive “rookie” campaign that showed more than enough to make him a buy in 2008. There is plenty to love within his skill set and his 2007 numbers, but then you put him on a team that will set him up for plenty of wins and he is an easy inclusion for this list, even for someone that doesn’t highly rate pitching.

79. James Shields – Tampa Bay Rays, SP (26):
Shields put together a breakout season complete with a tiny WHIP (1.11) and enough strikeouts (184) to land a spot in the top 10 amongst American League starters. Furthermore, all signs suggest it wasn’t a fluke. He pitched much better than his 12 wins suggested, but a brutal bullpen in the bay cost him dearly. The front office has taken strides to repair the tattered mess, which will benefit Shields and 87th ranked teammate, Scott Kazmir. Shields displays far better control than Kazmir which netted him the more favorable ranking as I feel it will translate to more wins in the long run and likely even a better ERA giving him the edge in three of the four categories for starters.

78. Felix Hernandez – Seattle Mariners, SP (22):
Look at me, starting off the second tier with a trio of arms!! Hernandez followed up his poor first half (poor against expectations, at least) with a strong second half despite a significant drop in strikeouts per nine innings (9.5 in the first half, 6.8 in the second). To this point, Hernandez has been something of an enigma in his two full seasons, but did show improvements from 2006 to 2007, except against lefties. Southpaws clubbed .299 off of him after getting to him for a .281 average in ’06. He needs to get a handle on facing lefties, but I expect more growth in 2008 as he continues to piece things together.

77. Rafael Furcal – Los Angeles Dodgers, SS (30):
He clearly was not himself during the first half with a mere one home run and seven stolen bases due in large part to an ankle injury. That first half performance caused him to snap his streak of four straight double-digit home run seasons as he only rebounded with five in the second half. It wasn’t just the power that dipped in 2007; in fact, he experienced dips across the board. Looks completely healthy and back on a green-light situation with 12 steals in September. There is no reason he shouldn’t be back in ’05-’06 form this season.

76. Jason Bay – Pittsburgh Pirates, OF (29):
If I had done this list a year ago, Bay would have been in the top 25 and thus, his 76th ranking this year would likely have been the biggest year-over-year tumble. Of course, this is the debut of such a list, so he merely has a chance to be 2009’s Most Improved. The disastrous performance looks to be an aberration when looking at his history so predicting a return to excellence seems reasonable. Age sides with him at just 29 and he had put together three strong years prior to last year’s collapse. I recognize the potential to get back in the 30-100 realm, but I can’t safely predict it when looking at the 2007 numbers top to bottom.

75. Vernon Wells – Toronto Blue Jays, OF (29):
Bombed his 2007 season after signing his mega-extension with the Jays before the season. He cut his home run output in half (32 to 16), dropped 26 runs batted in to 80, stole seven fewer bases (down to 10) and lost 58 points off of his batting average leaving him at a paltry .245. Currently, his 2003 and 2006 seasons stand as aberrations against a series of good, but not great seasons during the rest of his career. Patience has worn thin with owners waiting for superstardom allowing his teammate, Alex Rios, to pass him on the fantasy landscape.

74. Joe Nathan – Minnesota Twins, RP (33):
Nathan has put together four excellent seasons since becoming a closer in 2004, but last year saw a significant dip in strikeouts per nine innings, though he still nabbed one per inning. Elevated WHIP (though still a meager 1.02) likely caused by spike in batting average against (up to .211 from .165). Regardless, Nathan is still as consistent as it gets when talking about top-level closers.

73. Edgar Renteria – Detroit Tigers, SS (32):
The move to Detroit’s extremely potent lineup will likely allow a return to the 100-runs scored level. Batting average is where the bulk of his value is derived, but he does offer a nice double-digit mix in both power and speed. Skills and move to a more power-friendly home park suggest something very similar to the past two seasons of production. Of course, his one year in the American League (’05 with Boston) is the only season that he didn’t put together that kind of season since 1999, so bid accordingly.

72. Jorge Posada – New York Yankees, C (36):
He put up his best batting average ever at age 35, but don’t bet on it sticking. However, you can’t argue with the power at catcher regardless of age and then you factor in the plentiful RBI & runs scored opportunities with that Yankee lineup and you have a solid option at a painfully thin position. He has hit fewer than 20 home runs just once since 2000 (19 in ’05), so you can comfortably bank on another 20+ dingers in 2008.

71. J.J. Putz – Seattle Mariners, RP (31):
Wow, Putz has put together two straight brilliant seasons and nothing suggests that anything but another top season is forthcoming. He has struck out well over one per inning in both of his seasons as a closer while keeping runners off base at a remarkable clip (0.92 and 0.70), too. He could add a run to his 2007 earned run average and raise his WHIP by 30% and still be the league’s best closer.

70. Jonathan Papelbon – Boston Red Sox, RP (27):
Flirted with the notion of joining the rotation, but instead decided to strikeout 13 batters per nine innings en route to 37 saves. Lefties managed just a .104 average off of the eccentric Papelbon, 99 points down from 2006’s clip. Provided he gets enough opportunities, he will eclipse the 40-save mark this season. He will also pile up a ton of K’s once again, so pay for this bankable talent if you’re so inclined to pay for top-level saves.

69. Danny Haren – Arizona Diamondbacks, SP (27):
Well it looks like this tier is the pitcher-heavy one with half of the 20 players being mound men. Haren switches leagues after dominating the much tougher one a season ago. He wasn’t as good as the numbers suggested in the first half nor as bad as the numbers suggested in the second half. In fact, he pitched similarly in each half and has been extraordinarily consistent the past three seasons. Assuming he gains the natural boost from shifting to the easier league, he is an easy buy in 2008.

68. John Lackey – Los Angeles Angels, SP (29):
Lackey has been a real workhorse the past five years with 33 starts in four of them and 32 in the other one. Last year, he was a viable Cy Young candidate in the American League for much of the season. In fact, at the break he was 11-5 with a 2.91 earned run average. It wasn’t that he collapsed in the 2nd half, rather that stronger candidates emerged leaving him with merely a great season on his hands as opposed to award winning. He is a bona fide ace for the Angels and your fantasy team. His pattern of health allows him to be as consistent as you can expect any starting pitcher to be.

67. Michael Young – Texas Rangers, SS (31):
I don’t want to cast aspersions upon him, but it is interesting that Young became a power threat while playing with Juan Gonzalez and Rafael Palmeiro in 2003, an alleged and a proven steroid abuser. He put up home run totals of 14, 22, 24 and 14 from ’03-’06 after hitting just 20 in his first two seasons combined. Now, he was in his prime during that period so it is hardly unreasonable that he obtained the power surge legitimately, but it is odd that it disappeared so quickly when that is usually a skill that stays with you into the twilight of your career. He is in a three-year slide for homers bottoming out with just nine a season ago. A career .302 hitter, Young definitely has a bankable category that he has sustained over his seven seasons, but he also delivers runs and RBIs rather consistently, too, averaging 98 and 87, respectively, for every 162 games played. A better lineup (adding Milton Bradley, Ben Broussard, Josh Hamilton and full seasons of Hank Blalock and Jared Saltalamacchia) could improve the 80 runs and 94 RBIs from ’07.

66. Torii Hunter – Los Angeles Angels, OF (32):
Parlayed two excellent seasons into five-year, $90 million dollar deal with the Halos despite the fact they had signed poor man’s version of Hunter a year earlier in the form of Gary Matthews Jr. Though meaningless for the purposes of fantasy baseball, the signing gives the Angels probably the strongest outfield trio in baseball as Matthews shifts to left and Vlad Guerrero remains in right. Hunter fell off a bit in the 2nd half of last year, but still managed solid numbers. If you are looking for more than 25 home runs and 90 runs batted in, you are likely to be disappointed, but he chips in double-digit steals with those numbers and is riding a three-year uptrend in batting average so he has become a reliable albeit unsexy fantasy option for the outfield.

65. Bobby Abreu – New York Yankees, OF (34):
Though he curbed his three-year downtrend in home runs from a composite standpoint, he remains in a four-year power downtrend because he needed 57 more at-bats in 2007 to notch just one extra home run from 2006. However, as part of that Yankees lineup, he will remain a huge contributor in runs and runs batted in while delivering fair numbers in home runs and stolen bases. The x-factor for determining his overall value is batting average. He rebounded in the 2nd half of ’07 by hitting .309 after just .253 prior to the break. Is he at one end of those spectrums or does he split the difference and fall into a consistent .280-.290 realm? If you play in an OBP league, it’s irrelevant as he receives a huge bump with a consistent .400+ OBP year in and year out prior to ’07. Note that he did fix his OBP in the 2nd half as well with a .393 to end at .370.

64. Francisco Rodriguez – Los Angeles Angels, RP (26):
He has had three straight brilliant seasons as a closer and he just turned 26 yesterday! Sign K-Rod up for 12 strikeouts per nine, 40+ saves and great ratios each year. Closers are ridiculously volatile which is why there is a premium on the top talent and also why you can find an abundance of saves on the wire each year, so if you want to minimize the volatility and not worry about doing the homework to capture the closer du jour, then pay for or draft K-Rod and rest easy. He is my top closer for 2008.

63. Joe Mauer – Minnesota Twins, C (25):
Without a clean bill of health, I cannot justify paying top dollar for Mauer and since there is no way to ensure his health prior to the season (especially when he plays such a demanding position), you are better off leaving him as someone else’s problem. Now, many owners won’t have a problem with a .300 hitting catcher, but with all the hype, you would certainly think he does a helluva lot more. He has yet to deliver significant power, he has middling speed (though at catcher, little is expected) and 84 runs batted in is his career high. All of this despite the fact that 1273 of his 1416 at-bats in the past three seasons have come in the #3 spot. I don’t doubt his talent and see the potential for greatness, but given the price or pick that Mauer costs year in and year out, he is remarkably overrated on the fantasy landscape at this point.

62. Robinson Cano – New York Yankees, 2B (25):
Cano hits way too many groundballs to sustain the kind of home run potential he showed in his monstrous second half meaning it will fade barring a significant change in his approach. That said, he still has plenty to offer as part of that amazing lineup. Big average, decent power and great team-dependent offerings (runs scored & runs batted in) make Cano a premier choice for a position seeing some depth being added with the emergence of several players.

61. Justin Verlander – Detroit Tigers, SP (25):
Verlander actually improved upon a brilliant rookie season and at 25 years old, there is still plenty of growth forthcoming. Despite the elevated 2nd half ERA (4.47), there was plenty to like (increased K/9 and K:BB ratios) and his struggles were likely tied to stranding several fewer runners as well as some bad luck as more balls found open spots. Despite rookie success, many clamored for more strikeouts, so he delivered in ’07 moving from 6.0 to 8.2 per nine innings. Only a handful of pitchers are better and fantasy owners can realistically look to Verlander as a legit ace in ’08.

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