FLB '06: Thome to the champs


On the surface it would seem that Jim Thome, with 430 career home runs and owner of the 18th best slugging percentage in baseball history, would be worth far more than Aaron Rowand, whose .736 OPS last season ranked him 116th in 2005, behind Mark Grudzielanek, of all people. Before his lost 2005 season, Thome averaged 47 home runs for the previous four seasons. Rowand, meanwhile, hit fewer home runs last season than Javier Valentin and Rich Aurilia.

But fantasy baseball isn't real baseball. In the real world, the Phillies needed to make room for the Rookie of the Year and had a gaping hole in center field, while the White Sox needed more power. Each team gets what they wanted. And in fantasy, a case can be made that Rowand will be just as valuable in 2006 as Thome.

The most important thing with Thome is, naturally, his health. At 35 years old, it's unlikely he's going to improve much, but all the White Sox want is a few more 40 home run seasons, which seems attainable  if he's healthy. Forget about Thome's 2005; he was injured all season, ultimately succumbing to season-ending elbow surgery in August. His .207 batting average and lack of power is irrelevant in context to what he did the year before and should do when healthy. It's one bad season. But he is 35 and other than a certain San Francisco Giant, few hitters get better after that age.

In comparing park effects, there shouldn't be much of a dropoff going from Philadelphia's bandbox to Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field. Two seasons ago, this ballpark featured the most home runs hit in the majors. Last year, far fewer home runs were hit there, but the stat is skewed. For one, the White Sox didn't have the same lineup, trading in sluggers like Carlos Lee for a guy who didn't homer the entire regular season in Scott Podsednik, and their pitching was so good they allowed fewer long balls. Thome's a guy who will hit anywhere, and his stats should be similar to that of Paul Konerko, who is no certainty to stick around.

Fantasy owners won't want to overrate Thome in 2006 drafts, however. He does play a deep fantasy position, as Carlos Delgado does, so neither guy should be drafted in the top 50 overall, despite their power potential. But draft him with confidence if you see him healthy in March and expect 40 home runs.

In Rowand, the Phillies get a strong defensive center fielder who will play every day and fill a team need. Last year Kenny Lofton and Jason Michaels platooned in center field and were quite effective, each hitting better than .300 and scoring a combined 121 runs. Rowand could hit high up in the Philly order, possibly among the top two with Jimmy Rollins, and ahead of power hitters Chase Utley, Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard.

Rowand saw a steep decline in his power stats last year, but then again, his 2004 season came out of nowhere. Rowand wasn't projected as a starter for the White Sox that season, and he was past prospect status. Even now, he's 28 and what you see is what you get. But he should be good for 20 home runs and 20 steals, which ups his value above the normal 30-home run hitter who doesn't run. If Rowand hits high in the order, he's a good bet to bat .300 and score 100 runs. As an outfielder he'll be readily available after round 10 in ML drafts, and a fine choice for a potential five-category fantasy player. Carlos Beltran didn't have terribly different stats than Rowand last year, but who's going to go in round two, and who will be out there in round 10? Exactly.

Another lost angle of this trade is Rowand's fine play in center field. Fantasy owners might dismiss it, but Rowand showed terrific range in center field last year, while Phillies fans are aware of how little range (and arm) Lofton showed. On a pitching staff with only one strikeout pitcher (Brett Myers), adding Philly's best defensive center fielder since Garry Maddox will help aid control pitchers Jon Lieber and Cory Lidle.

The final thing fantasy owners must remember in and trade is who replaces those players involved. For Philly, it's obvious Ryan Howard inherits first base full time. Best stat on Howard is, from the day he was called up in 2005 to the end of the season, only two NL players hit MORE home runs than he did, Albert Pujols and Derrek Lee. Nice company. Howard can hit anywhere from third to sixth in the order and be an easy 30-100 guy for years.

In Chicago, Rowand won't be missed for a few reasons. One, the team could opt to move Podsednik back to center field, and find a free agent to man left field. Or the team could insert one of its top prospects into center field, Brian Anderson. He'll be 24 by opening day and has some of the same characteristics as Rowand. He has decent power, a bit of speed and strikes out a lot more than he walks. Fantasy owners will recall Anderson smacked his first two White Sox homers off none other than Seattle prodigy Felix Hernandez in August. Wait and see how he does in Spring Training and whether the White Sox give him a starting role before drafting him.