2010: The First Round

This article appeared on Fanball.com’s Owner’s Edge on August 8th:

Today I am headed to the 2010 crystal ball and I am going to piece together how I feel the first round in next March’s fantasy drafts should go. This is, of course, subject to change from now until hours before said drafts, but it’s always fun to start this exercise early and watch it evolve.

JUST MISSED

Let’s first start with a group of players that didn’t make the dozen (by the way, I realize some places advocate a 10-team as a standard league, but I honestly can’t stand them; I think 12 teamers are far superior and even 14-16 teams is ideal).

— All Pitchers – It is a well documented fact that pitchers carry higher risk than hitters and while you will invariably roster some risk, doing so in the first round is just foolish. Tim Lincecum is fantastic as are Johan Santana and Roy Halladay, but there isn’t a snowball’s chance of any of them landing on my roster in a draft league if the asking price is going to be that high. There are countless examples that I would cite as to why I won’t take a starting pitcher that high and most of them are names of guys that cost next to nothing and excelled, but others are guys that were “can’t miss” fantasy aces and they missed. I’ll spare you time and just mention the most recent: Brandon Webb. Anyone that tells you they could’ve seen this coming is a bold face liar. Webb was the definition of a workhorse with five straights seasons of 208+ innings and an ERA below 3.60 in all of them. He raised his wins yearly and his strikeouts in the first four before dipping down from 194 to 183 in 2008. No one, and again I mean no one, would’ve predicted that he’d throw one poor four inning outing and then spend the remainder of the season on the shelf. So feel free to take your ace pitcher in the first (or second) round and absorb the massive risk. I’m comfortable scouting for next guy left for dead after one down season (Justin Verlander), or the next injury comeback that slips because of the lack of recent production (Josh Johnson, Webb in 2010), or the next prospect who has been up so long without amazing results that he’s labeled a bust when in actuality he’s just hitting his prime (Edwin Jackson) or lastly the massively skilled guy that didn’t have the performance to match who is now in a much friendlier situation and ready to explode or re-explode in this particular case (Javier Vazquez).

–Grady Sizemore, OF, Cleveland Indians – Make no mistake, I love me a 2010 Grady Sizemore. He’s going to be underrated because of this wretched season (as compared to expectations) and provide some big time value a la Carl Crawford this year (of whom, if I may toot my horn a smidge, I said this about in a top 100 outfielders list this preseason, “Nothing in his foundational skills suggest that he won’t come back as good as ever in 2009 so invest the standard 50-stolen base speed with double digit power, a ton of runs, around 75 driven in and a .300 average.” He’s pacing for – 107 R, 18 HR, 78 RBI, 77 SB, .314 AVG). It’s not like Crawford was going in the 5th or 6th round and Sizemore won’t either, but you could see him drop into the 3rd for sure. Since the batting average was already an issue in his 30-30 season of 2008, it’s impossible to recommend him with your #1 pick even on the expectation that he’s at least a 25-25 guy. He should probably be moved from the leadoff spot on a permanent basis starting in 2010. Then we will finally start to see the 100-RBI seasons start rolling in.

–Mark Teixeira, 1B, New York Yankees – I was very excited for Teix to head to the Big Apple. As an aside, I’d have been more excited about 2009 had he stayed in Los Angeles with the Angels. Anyway, I still expected plenty of excellence from Teixeira once he signed with the Yanks. He sputtered out of the gate as he’s wont to do with a .200/.367/.371 line and three home runs. I wasn’t deterred. Not only did I hold Teixeira in the four leagues I had him in, I actually sought to acquire him in two others. As we know, he blew up in May with 13 home runs, 34 RBIs and a blistering 1.139 OPS. He’s re-entered the atmosphere again and maintained solid if unspectacular production ever since. Stats are stats and they all go towards the bottom line in a rotisserie league, but to see someone hit 48% of their home run total to date in one month is a bit disconcerting. It’s an odd enough sample to be considered a fluke. So while Teix’s move to New York has him on pace to finally reach the 40-HR plateau again, I’m not sold enough on him as a Yankee to believe that he is a first rounder.

–Mark Reynolds, 3B, Arizona Diamondbacks – If I had to guess, I would say that Reynolds has been the catalyst for a lot first place teams in fantasy leagues across the country. His MVP-caliber numbers at his clearance bin cost represent perhaps the best value of the season. He is on pace for an absurd 48 HR/30 SB season. But even more shocking than either of those figures is the .283 average. Reynolds is a human air conditioner with a 37% strikeout rate in 1297 major league at-bats. And that lack of contact puts a batting average at risk as evidenced by his .239 last year. The power is absolutely legitimate so at worst he’s a 30 HR threat for the foreseeable future. The speed, like the batting average, is a question. He did manage 11 stolen bases in 2008, but he’s nearly doubled that this year with two months to go. Simply put, his 2009 emergence cannot be trusted as an expectations guideline going forward. Some leagues will see him go very high, but there is a lot of risk here.

–Matt Holliday, OF, St. Louis Cardinals – I know what you’re thinking: “Well duh, of course he’s not a first round. Why is he even in the honorable mention list?” Well for one, he’s an excellent player. After he was traded to Oakland, throngs of people thought he would suck and once he had a terrible April, they felt validated and acted as if the season was over right then & there. He righted the ship in the Bay Area and while the numbers were definitely depressed a bit because of the harder league and much less friendly home park he still ended his brief Oakland stay with an .832 OPS. Since his trade back to the National League, he’s been perhaps the best hitter in the league with a .488 average and 1.386 OPS in his small 43 at-bat sample. Despite all of the nonsense posted about how Holliday would all of a sudden become Jacque Jones or something, he is on pace for a sold 21 HR/19 SB season with totals nearing 100 in runs scored and driven in. Thanks to his St. Louis boost, he’s now up over .300, too. I think he will stay with the Cardinals and be a very appetizing pick for those with a late first round draft slot. In the end, I don’t think he makes the cut, but he is very much an elite player.

–Jose Reyes, SS, New York Mets – I wouldn’t have moved him out of the first round based on one injury-riddled season if the injury wasn’t in the legs. Despite three straight double-digit home run seasons, Reyes’ value is without question in his speed. He has averaged 65 stolen bases in the past four seasons which is such an advantage in a heavily valued category. I was actually advocating him as the #1 overall pick (Albert who?) this offseason because he overwhelms in two categories (stolen bases and runs scored) while contributing significantly in the three others (average, home runs, RBIs). He’s still just 26 yet he has four full season and parts of two others before this year under his belt. If he has a clean bill of health and there is no expectation that he will be slowed by the injury that has limited his 2009 to 147 at-bats, then I will assuredly slot him back into the first round. But until then, he’s on the outside looking in because of the risk.

THE FIRST ROUND

12. Justin Morneau, 1B, Minnesota Twins – Morneau already has a few brilliant seasons under his belt including an MVP campaign, but his 2009 is shaping up to be the best yet. All he did in Joe Mauer‘s absence this April was hit .318 and post a .922 OPS. And when Mauer came back and just unleashed himself on the league, Morneau was there in lockstep with him accumulating a .361/.459/.713 line with nine home runs to Mauer’s 11. I think the perception is that first base is deeper than it actually is, but really it’s star-laden at the top and then it drops. Kendry Morales‘ emergence, Derrek Lee‘s resurgence and Mark Reynolds‘ qualification there certainly helps (though he’s likely still more valuable at third). I think Morneau himself is also a bit underrated in that you don’t always hear his name when talks of the elite first basemen begin, but most certainly belongs there thanks to a fourth straight powerhouse performance.

11. Prince Fielder, 1B, Milwaukee Brewers – See? I told you first base had star power. Fielder has 95 RBIs so far this season in 108 games, which is just seven fewer than he had all year in 2008 with 51 more games on his record. His 50-HR campaign is looking a little like Mark Teixeira‘s 40-HR season in that people thought that would become the norm when in actuality it became the high watermark that he may touch again in his career, but he is unlikely to approach perennially. This year Fielder has added a strong batting average to his arsenal as he is currently hitting .302, but don’t focus on that. The immense power and run production is why you invest in Fielder. He hit .288 in 2007 and followed it up with a .276 in 2008. The perception of a 12-point drop and the reality of it are very different and the same goes for the .276 as compared to this year’s .302. Overall, we’re really talking about a 7-8 +/- hit variance year over year given Fielder’s usual 575-580 at-bat sample. He is on pace for 39 home runs meaning he could easily reach 40 with a little luck. That means he’d have 50 and 40 home run seasons under his belt before turning 26. He is an amazing talent and the best is still on the way.

10. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Detroit Tigers – You didn’t believe me about that first base star power did you? There might even be one more coming in this top 10. Cabrera is a bona fide stud, plain and simple. He will need an RBI surge to notch his sixth straight 30-100 season (and as a Tigers fan, I’d LOVE to see a surge like he had last year in the 2nd half, but I digress). It took him a season in the new, more difficult league, but Cabrera has found his stroke once again and is headed for his second best batting average ever at .333. It’s odd to pretend as if last year’s .292 was some sort of slump or down year, but when you set the bar that high, these things happen. Cabrera still has at least one, if not a few .340-40-140 campaigns in his future. He will turn 27 early into the 2010 season, an age which is often regarded as the beginning of a hitter’s “prime years”. It is truly frightening to think that Cabrera can and almost assuredly will get better.

9. David Wright, 3B, New York Mets – To hear it from a Mets fan, Wright’s massive power outage can be blamed on Citi Field’s cavernous ways. Of course those very same people are aghast to find out that Citi Field is at the very least hitter-neutral and on some park factor lists, actually hitter-friendly when it comes to home runs. And that doesn’t even begin to address why Wright isn’t hitting home runs on the road if it’s only his home park causing the problem. Even with the power outage, Wright has been a top 15 fantasy producer this year thanks to a strong batting average (.323) and 23 stolen bases already. Even if he hadn’t boosted those two categories to offset his power shortcomings, I wasn’t going to banish a 26 (will be 27 at the start of 2010) year old superstar from the first round. He posted four straight seasons over 25 home runs before this year including a 30-30 campaign in 2007. If I didn’t have him in a key NL-Only money league, I’d almost be wishing for him to hit 10 or fewer home runs so the knee-jerk reactors would swear off of his for 2010 and pump up his value for those of us that know enough not to place too much emphasis on this one season when he has 2650 at-bats of excellence under his belt.

8. Joe Mauer, C, Minnesota Twins
– I debated about whether or not to slot him higher, but my recent comments about overemphasizing one year with respect to a down year are in play for a good year, too. Perhaps Mauer stole Wright’s power. Either way, it’s a skill never before displayed by Mauer at such a high level making it suspect moving forward. The upshot is that he didn’t sacrifice a single bit of his batting average once the power arrived, in fact he’s on pace for a career high .359. His 2009 at the deepest position on the diamond would be jaw dropping so to see them come from a catcher is just mind blowing. And because he is such a tremendous hitter I think his new found skill is here to stay, at least most of it. Think about how much value you’re getting with a first baseman’s line at catcher. I think Mauer hits .320-25-90-90 in his sleep for the next several seasons (provided health) with the capability of so much more as his 2009 injury-shortened season has shown. The talk about moving him from behind the dish has been in play for almost his whole career, but he’s apparently said he wants to stay there. I would just suggest you enjoy it while you can.

7. Alex Rodriguez, 3B, New York Yankees – I almost feel wrong slotting A-Rod this far down the list, but I think it’s an accurate position for him. Similar to Mauer, A-Rod is having a very strong season despite missing over a month to injury. I think if you had told A-Rod owners that they would have to absorb his weak batting average (.261) in order to get 80 runs, 33 home runs, 103 RBIs and 12 stolen bases-all of which he’s on pace for this season-they would’ve been thrilled. He was tumbling down into the 6th and 7th rounds in some leagues because fantasy owners were so paralyzed with fear. The reason I didn’t end up putting A-Rod higher is that the simple fact is because he is 34 years old and he’s not invincible. He is a world-class player that dominated his sport for years and still has several great years left in him, but as he ages the speed will continue to deteriorate and the batting average will suffer, too.S

6. Carl Crawford, OF, Tampa Bay Rays – Welcome back, C2! After the seasons Crawford had been putting up (five straight seasons over 45 SBs, four of those w/50+), it was so completely obvious that health was what held him back in 2008. In fact it killed his season. It essentially made him waiver wire fodder. But that is all in the past now and he has decided to make up for lost time by running wild this year. If he keeps at his current pace, he will smash his career high of 59 and end up with 77! The 12 home runs he has already would have been enough to satiate most owners, but he’s got two months to match or exceed his career high of 18. Simply put: Crawford is in the midst of his prime and he is a legitimate five-category contributor when healthy.

5. Ryan Braun, OF, Milwaukee Brewers – He just hasn’t slowed down since his amazing rookie campaign back in 2007. He is a four-category stud and maintains mid-teens speed giving him across-the-board viability. The crazy thing is that he will be just 26 years old next year meaning he likely hasn’t even come close to peaking. He definitely has 40 home run power in his bat and he could feasibly string together three or four such seasons. The speed may trickle down as he goes through his late 20s, but that’s all just gravy anyway since you’re buying the massive power production, runs scored and .300+ batting average. It’s a shame he was such a butcher at third base because he would be even more valuable on the infield.

4. Matt Kemp, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers – It’s hard to find something not to like about this blossoming 24-year old (will turn 25 before 2010). He has a better than .300 career average, incredible speed (35 SBs last year and on pace for 33 more this year) and developing power. He’s set to top 20 home runs for the first time in his career this year and he’s on pace for an incredible 104 RBIs. Why would a 104-RBI season be incredible? Because Kemp has spent the bulk of his season hitting 6th, 7th or 8th in the lineup. He’s even batted 9th 11 times! It is tough to argue with the production down there, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t excel as the 5th hitter if he were left there for a significant sample. The wart that Kemp does have is his strikeout rate. He was at 25% last year tallying 153 strikeouts. He’s on pace to cut total down by about 15 or so this season. If he keeps putting up these kinds of numbers on offense, then I can deal with his strikeout rate, but seeing how he has progressed since his first season leads me to believe he will correct that strikeout rate as he ages.

3. Chase Utley, 2B, Philadelphia Phillies
– What if I told you that I had a .300-30-100-100-15 guy available to you in the first round? In fact he’s somewhat underrated as compared to other superstars so you might get him later in the first round. Is that something that would interest you? Of course it is. Now what if I told you this guy played second base? I know, you’d do back flips. Chase Utley is just amazing. Kanye West may have made that song with him in mind actually. Though 30 (he will be 31 by 2010 opener), he has shown no signs of slowing down any time soon. I think he will stand as a viable first round candidate for at least the next two years before he starts his decline phase.

2. Hanley Ramirez, SS, Florida Marlins – I am still not entirely certain he doesn’t deserve the top spot. What can’t he do? The move down in the lineup has curbed his stolen base production, but the 28 he is on pace for is nothing to sneeze at, either. And this year he has countered that dip in speed with a career high .344 batting average and more RBIs (which were expected in the 3-hole). It blows my mind to think that he will be just 26 next year. When you stack the numbers with the guy residing in the top spot (have you figured out who it is yet?), it’s clear to see why it’s tough to pick one ahead of the other. Then you factor in Ramirez’s position and the decision gets even murkier. The reason I eventually landed on Ramirez at 2 is because while you know you can expect greatness, it is not entirely certain where it will come from within the five categories. Will his speed continue to trickle down as a middle-of-the-order producer? Will the power go back up to last year’s mid-30s heights and beyond? Is a .330-.340 hitter or more a .300-.310 hitter? There is a pretty significant difference over the course of 600+ at-bats. What I do know for sure is that if someone flips these top two, I wouldn’t really argue. They are the quintessential 1 and 1a split by millimeters at best.

1. Albert Pujols, 1B, St. Louis Cardinals – This guy is absurd. I really could end it right there and I don’t think anyone would find it weird. But I’ll elaborate a bit. The 2007 and 2008 seasons are what you get when Pujols isn’t really 100% and they were still both fantastic seasons. Now he is operating at 100% and we see the damage he is doing. He’s a four category superstar and he’s brought back the speed he flashed back in 2005. He’s already reached double-digit steals and he’s on pace for 15. He’s also on pace to be the first player to top 50 home runs since 2008 (Ryan Howard, 58). I think the part of Pujols’s flawless game that gets overlooked, at least to a degree, is the batting average. Getting 550-600 at-bats of .330+ batting average is incredible. As I mentioned earlier, I think Matt Holliday will stay in St. Louis to keep that lineup clicking around Pujols. He’s my #1 for 2010.

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