The Next Tier: 2009

I woke up to a couple of emails asking me who’s knocking on the door of the first round, so I’ll cover a second group that I really like again in 2009. It is another group of 12 that could represent the second round, but they won’t be in any particular order. (Note: no pitchers are included as I usually leave them to their own listing. When I do a composite Top 50 or 100, pitchers will be included)

The guy mentioned all but once in the six emails I received about the list was Matt Holliday and I completely understand. The guy is a beast, but the uncertainty surrounding his whereabouts for 2009 have me reticent to place him in that first tier. From 2005-2007, the difference in OPS between home & away was almost 300 points. This year, it’s just over 200. He’s hardly a shmuck outside of Coors Field, but he definitely gains a boatload of his value from making his home there. If and when he’s guaranteed to play 2009 in Coors Field, he’ll jump into that top level.

Many are quick to say Lance Berkman can’t sustain what he is doing this year, but I don’t believe that to be true. First of all, he’s well off of his torrid pace from the late spring/early summer so he’s pacing to a .333-128-31-109-20 season right now. The speed is only real anomaly in this bunch and it’d be wise to pay for a max of 10 steals and enjoy anything else as gravy. Meanwhile the rest of the stat line is plenty attainable. With one home run and five double since the All-Star Break, it is looking like the Home Run Derby has claimed another victim. He’s a bankable .300-100-30-100 and that’s very valuable.

Speaking of reliable numbers, Berkman’s teammate Carlos Lee is as steady as they get. The speed dipped a bit this season, but prior to 2008 he had logged five straight double-digit SB seasons. Meanwhile, there probably isn’t a steadier .300-100-30-100 trend-line on the market. He will turn 33 during next season, but age doesn’t sap the skills he has proven to own since joining the elite ranks.

Basically an outfield version of Brandon Phillips right down to the inability to take a walk, Corey Hart is another across-the-board talent you love to have in your lineup. Some plate patience would give him several more chances on base to push that stolen base total above 30. He will be 26-years old at the beginning of next season, his third full one in the majors, and he should be ready to bust out completely.

Are you getting tired of seeing five category guys yet? Sorry, I just love laying the foundation for a fantasy team by getting a good bit of everything. Nick Markakis is on pace to raise his OPS by nearly 40 points from last year by season’s end and the huge increase in plate discipline (already more walks than all of last season) points to a superstar in the making. He will be 25-years old next year and he might be ready to reach that 30-home run plateau. Keeper league rebuilders would be well-served to do all they can to make Markakis their anchor.

It’s impossible not to be disappointed by the utter collapse of B.J. Upton‘s power this season. In his final season of second base-eligibility, many believed a 30-home run season was in order after he whacked 24 in 474 at-bats last year. Instead, he’s become a punchless speed demon showing a surprising amount of plate patience. He could top 50 stole bases, but will struggle to reach double digits in home runs while almost assuredly walking 100+ times. I think lingering shoulder pain has sapped his power and it won’t fully return until 2009. He will turn 24 in 10 days and should be undervalued heading into 2009. A 20-30 season is very possible.

It is tough to follow up a 50-home run/119-RBI season and barring a huge August/September surge, Prince Fielder‘s encore will be somewhere in the 35-95 range. Make no mistake that there is nothing wrong with that, but undoubtedly a disappointment to his fantasy owners. He is just getting going though and if his value takes even the slightest bump due to this season, then you need to be ready to pounce. He has similar run production to Ryan Howard without being the horrific batting average anchor.

There was/is no bigger bust in 2008 than the reigning National League MVP, Jimmy Rollins. Like Upton, his power disappeared. Unlike Upton, he has a much stronger track record of the power making the disappearance more startling. He, again like Upton, is almost assuredly playing through nagging injuries that go unnoticed by the fans yet tremendously impact a player’s numbers. His speed hasn’t faded and he hit .286 or better in every month except June so you can be confident in a 2009 rebound. He is another former first rounder that is almost sure to be undervalued which just creates a great opportunity for his 2009 owners. Don’t be the shortsighted one at the table that focuses too heavily on a disappointing 2008 campaign.

His first season in his “prime” didn’t go according to plan for Carl Crawford and now he’s going to miss some time with a hand injury further damaging his 2008 totals. His problem this year were the declines in speed and average. He doesn’t blow you away with his R, HR and RBI totals, but the given 50-.300 is where sets himself apart. Even if he were playing, he was only pacing to 34-.273. That Rays offense should get even better in 2009 and Crawford will be a beneficiary as well as a catalyst to that success. He might not be a 50-base stealer anymore, but he could be headed for 100 runs, 20 home runs and 100 runs batted in if he settles in at the 3-hole behind Upton and ahead of Evan Longoria.

Don’t tell Adrian Gonzalez that he plays in a pitcher’s paradise. Enjoying a breakout season this year, Gonzalez is establishing himself as a reliable .285-30-100 first baseman despite playing half of his games in the cavernous Petco Park. Granted, he does a lot more damage on the road so you could only imagine what he’d be if he played in a neutral or hitter-friendly yard. He’ll be 27 early in the 2009 season and he isn’t terribly flashy, but his kind of consistency is great as he has one sub-.800 OPS month in his past seven and just four in his last 15. The potential for 35-120 is there as his 2008 pace shows, but the lack of a huge downside gives him underrated appeal.

My pick for the 2008 NL MVP was shipped back to the AL before he had a chance to make a miraculous run to prove me right, but Mark Teixeira is another reliable that does pretty darn well even in “disappointment” seasons. Everyone is waiting for the 40-home run season again and he would have likely given us another one last year had he been able to get the 644 at-bats he had during the 43-HR campaign of 2005, but his 30-105 in less than 500 at-bats was sufficient. Two common themes amongst this group have been 5-category guys and reliable production. Big Teix is the latter to the point where you can add .285-100-30-100 to your team’s bottom line once you acquire him. He is even a bigger stud in OBP leagues because he knows how to draw a walk.

I have gone round and round with myself about whether to put Derrek Lee, Carlos Beltran or somebody else all together here in the last spot. I know Lee isn’t a 40-home run hitter like his 2005 season, but at this point I’m not sure he’s a 30-home run hitter, either. Meanwhile, Beltran is pacing for a huge power drop in 2008. He is 11 off of his 2007 total despite almost 70 more at-bats. When you’re putting up 35-25 or 40-20, it’s easy to overlook a .275 batting average, but not when you’re headed for 20-25. If Milton Bradley could stay healthy, I would have no reservations about putting him here… alas he can’t. If we were talking strictly OBP leagues, entertaining the idea of Pat Burrell or Adam Dunn here would be a no-brainer… alas we’re not. I’ll go with someone I advocated heavily this past off-season, Alfonso Soriano. At 32, he is hardly old and his pace of .299-70-28-76-15 in 399 at-bats is just amazing. Hitting leadoff eats into the RBI totals, but it is tough to find flaws in 100-30-80-25.

Enjoy!

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