Until fantasy football came around, my brothers insisted on keeping our fantasy baseball draft boards prominently displayed in our downstairs living room. An overhead light almost served as a spotlight on my draft-day mistakes. Now not playing: John Smoltz AND Yovani Gallardo! In fact, I ended up with only three pitchers lasting the season and a 10th place finish in that league. So my mind welcomed the chance to think about fantasy football and next year’s baseball draft.
In today’s Fantasy Focus Baseball podcast, Matthew Berry and Nate Ravitz realized that next year’s fantasy draft could be the most wide-open of the online fantasy era. This year saw a general consensus around A-Rod and Hanley Ramirez, with Albert Pujols falling after questions about his balky elbow. In normal 5×5 category leagues, this year’s most valuable player has been Lance Berkman (with a monster year assisted by his RF eligibility). But can you imagine a league outside Brad Ausmus’ house where Berkman goes first in 2009? Age, performance and position strength have combined to make “Who’s No. 1?” a legitimate question. Here are seven potential picks, with their strengths and weaknesses.
Lance Berkman – first base
Seasonal age at the start of 2009: 33
Current standard Yahoo fantasy rank: 1
Strengths: Berkman has bounced back from a down 2007 by matching a career high in batting average while finding untapped reserves of stolen base accumen (16 this year, 14 in 2005-2007 combined). His combination of on-base skills and batting average keeps the runs and RBI high as the home run power settles into a 25-30 range.
Weaknesses: Berkman loses that outfield eligibility, which hurts. The Astros went for broke this year, and the roster isn’t exactly in the Gossip Girl desired demographic. The team re-upped with Darin Erstad for next year, indicative of a team that can’t figure out the top of the order. While some might see this as room for improvement, it’s possible that Berkman maxed out the scenario and will slowly fade.
Albert Pujols – first base
Seasonal age at the start of 2009: 29
Current standard Yahoo fantasy rank: 2
Strengths: Coming into the 2008 season, the fear was that Pujols would be an ’00s version of Jack Clark and reach Bonds-ian levels of walks as pitchers took their chances with the likes of Skip Schumaker instead. The outfield turned into a productive mix, led by Ryan Ludwick, and allowed a (somewhat) healthy Pujols the chance to both take and rake. He won’t reach 2006′s fantasy peak this season, but in a depressed home run environment he’s just as valuable. That stands to continue in 2009, with enough intriguing outfielders to keep the offense chugging.
Weaknesses: The threat of surgery looms, if not confirmed. If the Cards falter, will he consider the surgery again? That isn’t his only ache, and an overall positive (Pujols wanting to play all the time) can cost him in sapped performance. Can Ludwick and Glaus provide sufficient insurance against four-pitch walks again? And will they allow him to get his runs above 100?
Alex Rodriguez – third base
Seasonal age at the start of 2009: 33
Current standard Yahoo ranking: 4
Strengths: Rodriguez offers the type of injury-free stability one desires from the No. 1 pick, and if his numbers seem disappointing it’s only because of the Hall of Fame standard he has set for the past decade. He still steals more than you think he does, and even with his poor late-and-close statistics he still drives in plenty of runs. Why mess with success?
Weaknesses: A-Rod is inching out of the standard age range when players perform at their peak. More concerning, however, is the uncertain status of the Yankee offensive juggernaut. A cavalcade of outfielders/first basemen/DHs combined with Derek Jeter’s decline and Robinson Cano’s disappointing season all have limited both run and RBI opportunities. Will the team go out and replace Bobby Abreu and/or Jason Giambi with productive boppers?
Matt Holliday – left field
Seasonal age at the start of 2009: 29
Current standard Yahoo ranking: 5
Strengths: The hitting machine has just about kept pace with his near-MVP performance in 2007, losing a smidge of power but making up for it by ordering the same “How to Steal Bases and Influence People” DVD as Lance Berkman. As some of his fellow elite outfielders settle into their 30s, he surprisingly offers some position scarcity – his biggest competition includes Manny Ramirez, Grady Sizemore and Ryan Braun.
Weaknesses: Are those steals for real? He’s only been caught one time, so it’s certainly not a fluke. But he’s only been a 10-steal guy in the past. Also, a spotty Rockies offense has depressed the number of RBI opportunities for Holliday. If Dexter Fowler emerges as a starting outfielder for the Rockies, that could mean many more chances.
Hanley Ramirez – shortstop
Seasonal age at the start of 2009: 25
Current standard Yahoo ranking: 9
Strengths: The toolsy Ramirez has done the types of things you expect as the focal point of the Marlins offense – he’s walking in almost 10 percent of his plate appearances and striking out a bit more. At 6-3 and 200 pounds, most analysts predicted more than 30 home runs this year, and he’s pounded 29 so far. The walks have led to even more run-scoring opportunities. Other heirs to the shortstop throne (Jimmy Rollins, Derek Jeter) declined noticably in 2008.
Weaknesses: Keeping Ramirez at the top of the Marlins lineup has maximized his at-bats but limited his RBI opportunities. If the team could find an outfielder who could get on base, Ramirez would be a perfect No. 2 or 3 hitter in the lineup. Also, his 212 hits in 2007 might be a high point as teams pitch around him.
Tim Lincecum – starting pitcher
Seasonal age at the start of 2009: 24
Current standard Yahoo ranking: 15
Strengths: Seabiscuit has lived up to his gaudy minor league statistics and hype to emerge as a possible NL Cy Young Award winner in his first full season. He strikes out more than a batter per inning and doesn’t give up the home runs (only 10 so far) that can inflate a week’s ERA.
Weaknesses: There’s still that tiny matter of being on the San Francisco Giants, which hurts in both offensive and defensive support. A rash of rookies have flooded the roster this season, to middling results. Having fly-catchers like Rowand, Roberts and Winn does help on the defensive front, at least. If you take a pitcher No. 1, though, you’re hoping for 20 wins, and the Giants won’t be good enough to keep your mind at ease.
CC Sabathia – starting pitcher
Seasonal age at the start of 2009: 28
Current standard Yahoo ranking: 17
Strengths: After a horrid start that had some wondering whether last year’s heavy workload doomed the Cy Young Award winner, Sabathia has exhibited durability, strikeout prowess (217 thus far) and the ability to go deep enough into games to get the win. And when faced with a bullpen like the Brewers backing you up, that can’t be discounted. He has surpassed his 2007 campaign, aided no doubt by the move to the non-DH league.
Weaknesses: What kind of team will Sabathia sign with in the offseason? If it’s an NL team in a good pitchers park (say, the Mets, Cardinals or Padres), that could mean an artificial boost to his skills. If it’s an AL team like the Rangers or Red Sox, then that could be an artificial detriment. As long as Ned Yost doesn’t pitch him every game in the NLDS, his whereabouts should be scrutinized by high-picking fantasy owners.
Also receiving consideration, depending on your locale and draft tendencies: Roy Halladay (groundball-inducing machine keeps the ERA down in a tough division), Dustin Pedroia (better than Utley in 2008!), Manny Ramirez (depending on what team signs him), David Wright (entering his prime), Jose Reyes (great steal numbers without the Bourn-esque bad batting average), Mark Teixeira (depending on his team and your patience for slow starts), Grady Sizemore (the only thing missing is a .300 average), Johan Santana (most consistently excellent starting pitcher in the game), Cliff Lee (best pitcher in the game this season) and Ryan Braun (entering prime with lots of power and enough speed to be considered a five-category player).