The 1st Round: 2009

With just under two months left in the season, there won’t be a great deal of change on the fantasy landscape that will thoroughly impact how I view the first round for the 2009 season. Obviously there can and likely will be plenty of change over the late fall and winter months, but for now I wanted to look at how this season has impacted the top of my rankings for next year thus far. For contextual purposes, let’s see who I had in the top 12 heading into the season. Here are the first 12 from my last Top 100 Rankings posted on February 26th:

I’m not too upset by that list. Jimmy Rollins has been an all-out bust, but I don’t think there were any glaring indicators within his statistics that suggested this kind of collapse from excellence. After all, he’s the reigning National League MVP. He has missed 25 games, but even pacing him out with those 25 games would still point to a huge drop-off from last year’s production.

Missing 50 games has kept Alfonso Soriano from justifying the 7th overall rating, but his production while playing has backed up my ranking. I saw him being underrated in a lot of drafts and auctions and his end of season numbers will likely lead those that undervalued him to believe it was the right move even though his depressed numbers are due to his missing 31% of the season. He could be a great star value going into next year.

The fervor about a potential Albert Pujols injury definitely impacted my rankings, but how could it not? There was hardly a neutral report about it let alone a positive one. No one expected the Cardinals to hang around in the race like they have and as such, it was feared that any sign at injury would send Pujols to the operating table rather than gutting it out for a 5th place team.

I chickened out a bit by not ranking Grady Sizemore in that top 12 despite how much I love his game. I took him 8th and 10th in two separate leagues this past March, but I think I was scared off by the lack of runs batted in because he was a leadoff hitter. The mediocre batting average also gave me some pause.

Now onto next year. Who’s moved up? Who’s moved down?

Hanley Ramirez plays some pretty horrible shortstop, but thankfully that has no impact on fantasy owners across the world and even if he does move to a new position, he will still be shortstop-eligible for all of the 2009 season. His unreal numbers combined with that eligibility & his age (26 next year) give him the top spot. The speed and average are on pace to take a hit this year, but he still in the midst of a great season and entering his prime. The Marlins might do well to bat Ramirez third on a more regular basis next year despite the results during that experiment this year. Of course with only 56 at-bats, sample size caveats do apply.

Without a burst in the final six weeks, Alex Rodriguez will fail to reach 100+ runs batted in for the first time since 1997, his second full season. Of course, he is also on pace to register fewer than 500 at-bats for the first time in his career outside of his 1994 and 1995 cups of coffee with the Mariners. The fact that he still might go .315-100-35-100-20 is what makes him so amazing. I still wouldn’t fault someone for taking him 1st given his reliability.

As I mentioned earlier, the only reason Albert Pujols was rated 10th on my pre-season rankings was because I bought into the potential of huge time missed because of injury. Instead, Pujols has been absolutely amazing with incredible counting stats and .350 batting average that trails only Chipper Jones for the best in baseball. Pacing at 32 home runs for the second straight season suggests that the elbow might still be sapping his power as he had three straight 40+ home run seasons before 2007.

Going from 30-34 to 30-19 seems like a huge drop off, but it’s really not that bad. David Wright is quietly enjoying another superstar season despite being on pace to cut 44% from his stolen base total of 2007. Hitters in the 3-hole rarely run a TON so it’s not surprising to see Wright’s speed fade a bit since he’s been there all season. As his career trajectory continues upward, Wright’s already a bankable star in any format and the 2009 marks the beginning of his traditional prime.

I know the average lacks (as I noted above), but you just can’t ignore the total package that Grady Sizemore offers. Sizemore remains a 3-hole hitter trapped in a leadoff hitter’s body. For fantasy purposes, even though a move down in the lineup might improve his RBI totals, it’d almost certainly take away some speed (similar to Wright) so if I have him in a keeper league or want to acquire him for 2009, I’m hoping he remains the leadoff hitter for Cleveland. Like Wright, Sizemore enters his prime next year.

On May 31st, Chase Utley hit his 8th home run of that month and his 5th in six games; he has 10 since (including one today). For roto players, the composite stats are what matter most when the season ends, but head-to-head leaguers have to be troubled by his power outage. He is on pace for 40 home runs, but that would take 11 home runs over the final six weeks meaning he’d need to get back on track in a hurry. Mentioning his dip in power isn’t meant to take anything away from his season, he is still the gold standard for second base.

Is anyone playing better baseball than Miguel Cabrera since the beginning of July? Well there are a few in the conversation, but of players with 125+ plate appearances since then he is 1st in RBI, t3rd in HR, 9th in OPS and 11th in AVG. He was written off after a pedestrian (by his standards) first three months, but has used the last 2+ months to show why he is one of the game’s best hitters. With a full year in the American League under his belt, look for Cabrera to return to pre-2008 levels and perhaps beyond in 2009. I think he’ll be in contention for the MVP next year. That is 70% objective and 30% complete homerism as a Tigers fan.

I thought Ryan Braun would regress a bit this season given his free-swinging ways. Whoops. I still rated him 17th overall, but I short-changed him by a good bit. He has yet to slow down since bursting onto the scene in May of last year. As outfielder only next year, there might be a perception of a drop in value but given that third base is probably a bit deeper than the outfield it shouldn’t really dent his composite value. The flexibility is always nice regardless of the positions, especially in daily leagues, but losing shortstop eligibility from someone like Carlos Guillen is more damaging than Braun’s loss of 3B-qualification.

There has only been one standings-changer in stolen bases this year and it hasn’t been Jose Reyes. His 37 swipes are nothing to sneeze at, but Willy Tavares is (yes, I’m about to do this…) running away with the category with 51 despite over 100 fewer at-bats than Reyes and Ichiro. Even still, Reyes is pacing to improve his power and hitting totals with legitimate increases in home runs, RBIs and batting average. After three straight increases in stolen bases, he is on pace to drop 33% off of his 2007 total and since the bulk of his value is derived from that speed, he takes a hit in the rankings.

Would you believe that I took some heat in reader emails after ranking Ian Kinsler 53rd in my preseason Top 100? Hindsight is obviously 20/15, but I’m a sucker for power-speed combos and despite not playing more than 130 in either of his first two seasons, I liked what I had seen from Kinsler. Though his overall power is pacing to a drop (scheduled to match his 2007 20-HR total despite nearly 200 more at-bats), he could add as many as 50 points to his batting average if he holds pace as well as significant in the other counting stats aside from home runs. He will be 25 next year and could build upon this breakout campaign.

It has been a storybook leap into superstardom for Josh Hamilton, but as a former #1 overall pick, we knew he had the talent and potential. No one expected him to cash in that potential so quickly upon his return to the game after a tumultuous seven years from being drafted in 1999 by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to 2007 as a Rule V pick of the Cincinnati Reds. Rating him 11th is due in large part to the fact this highest production category, RBIs, is one of the most volatile for hitters. I think he has erased the question marks about lack of experience and whether he can sustain production at the major league level. He could be headed for a series of .300-100-35-110-5 seasons similar to Carlos Lee with a little less speed.

Speaking of resurgent players, Brandon Phllips is putting the finishing touches on his third straight very good season after being put out to pasture in 2005. He hasn’t exactly battled the same sorts of things that Hamilton has, but he is another top prospect that initially flopped and was then written off. Still amazingly only 27, Phillips is in the throes of his prime and despite pacing down a few ticks in his production, he is a very reliable power-speed combination with legitimate 35-35 potential.

Feel free to leave comments on the initial 2009 Top 12. It’s sure to change and see adjustments in the lead up to next season, but this is my first look at how things are shaping up for the following season. October will see the first version of 2009’s Top 100 followed by several other lists over the winter.

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