Cockcroft: Hot Stove Starts Up
You know, when it comes to cooking, I've never been one for preheating. Sure, every recipe suggests "preheat oven to 400 degrees" or the like, but I'm the impatient type. I'll turn on the oven, pop that food right in and tack on an extra minute or two on the timer, figuring it'll all even out in the end. After all, who likes waiting?
Apparently, the baseball world agrees with me.
Hours after -- OK, technically hours before, thanks to A-Rod -- the Boston Red Sox polished off their World Series sweep of the Colorado Rockies, baseball's "Hot Stove" season officially began, seemingly earlier this year than it has ever before. Jonathan Papelbon still might be dancing his Irish jig in Boston's streets, but for the other 29 teams, it's back to the drawing board, hoping to dance in the streets themselves come next October.
Pardon the aside for a moment, if you will, but congratulations to the Red Sox. It's a shame that there's any feeling that the quick start to the hot-stove season took off any of the luster from their accomplishment; two championships in four years is a remarkable feat and that must be recognized. And that's coming from a die-hard, life-long Yankee fan, even though many of my readers get the impression I wear red, due to my willingness to admit certain faults in the team the past couple seasons. Sadly, since Sunday I haven't been able to bring myself to wear my "Got Rings?" t-shirt I was once given; the "it won't be 86 years before our next one" line really is no longer appropriate.
But I digress. Anyway, back to the column.
Fantasy-wise -- and really, this is the baseball fan in me talking, too -- there's nothing more exciting than constantly looking ahead, prospecting, evaluating. To many of us, fantasy baseball is a 365-day-a-year (366 days in 2008, yay!) exercise, and nothing excites us more than the official beginning of the hot-stove season. So, without further ado, let's get right into the hot-stove talk, which I'll be helping guide you through each week this winter.
Here's a move that, at least on the surface, might seem a bit odd, but actually makes a decent amount of sense, at least for the Tigers. Renteria takes over as the team's new everyday shortstop -- when healthy, of course -- allowing Carlos Guillen to slide over to first base, a move that had been coming since late in 2006.
Many might hail this move as a brilliant defensive upgrade, but the numbers actually suggest not much changed. Renteria did have a better fielding percentage (.977) than Guillen (.955) in 2007, and has bested him in that department in three of the past four seasons, but in terms of range factor -- important for a shortstop -- Guillen actually had Renteria's number in all four of those seasons. In other words, he gets to more balls, but Renteria is cleaner with the ones he gets. Guillen, meanwhile, actually had comparable defensive numbers at first base (.995 fielding percentage, 10.18 range factor) to Sean Casey (.998/9.41), so the truth is for 2008, the infield defense should be somewhat similar. In the long term, Guillen is better off at a less-taxing defensive position.
So, then, what makes me so fond of the Renteria deal on Detroit's side? It's all in the hitting. The Tigers take Casey's bat out of the lineup, no small feat considering he slugged .393 and racked up an underwhelming .746 OPS. The American League average in those categories, by the way, were .443 and .791. Guillen was well ahead of both (.502/.859); so was Renteria (.470/.860), and he's not a power hitter. That means that if the Tigers return all other players at their respective positions in 2008 -- I'll put Marcus Thames in left field -- the only real offensive liability might be Brandon Inge, a No. 9 hitter and 27-homer man two short years ago. By the way, despite Casey's presence and a horrible season by Inge, the Tigers ranked third in runs in 2007. Boy could RBIs and runs be plentiful.
For the Braves, their haul isn't exceptional and perhaps they might have done better had they waited, but they did get two young, useful parts. Jair Jurrjens did manage a 4.70 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in seven starts for the Tigers after registering 3.20/1.27 numbers for Double-A Erie. He'll be in the mix for a rotation spot, and while he's not a future ace, there could be some matchups potential in him if he breaks camp with the team. Gorkys Hernandez, meanwhile, is a speedy center fielder, though he's only 20 years old and only in low Class-A ball. In other words, while he might be a name that excites us in 2010 (or later), there's as much a chance he's the next Joey Gathright as he is the next Juan Pierre.
Yunel Escobar benefits most from Renteria's departure; the everyday shortstop role is his. He's not quite what Renteria was with the glove, but then he might not wind up much less with the bat -- Renteria's stunning 2006 aside -- either. In a way, calling him "Renteria lite" isn't all that unfair, and it shouldn't be too much a downgrade.
Unless you count the Yankees' managerial change the official beginning of the hot-stove season, Alex Rodriguez's announcement that he was opting out of the final three years of his 10-year, $252-million contract was the winter's first significant bit of news. Sadly -- and inappropriately, I'd say -- it broke only shortly before the Red Sox's completion of their World Series sweep, an awfully early (too early, really) start to the free-agent season.
Some fantasy owners probably scoff at the idea of A-Rod potentially switching teams actually meaning anything significant for our purposes. I happen to agree with those people; A-Rod's A-Rod, he's going to provide you first-round, potential No. 1-overall numbers no matter where he plays. Still, you'd be surprised, there are a lot of people out there who worry about what a change in scenery might do to his statistical output.
As things stand today, it appears Rodriguez's time with the Yankees is done; they claim they won't negotiate with him now that they've lost the $21.3 million remaining in payments from the Rangers on his contract. So, with A-Rod destination speculation the name of the game this week, here's how I'd see things shaping up for him based on the early candidates:
Red Sox. Remember, A-Rod nearly became a member of the Red Sox during the 2003-04 hot-stove season, in the proposed swap for Manny Ramirez that got nixed by the player's association (they didn't want his contract to be restructured). With the Sox fresh off a second World Series title in four years since, they might no longer consider A-Rod that necessary, but it's not like a move to Boston would hurt him. Since 2005, he's a .282 hitter with nine homers and 25 RBIs in 28 games at Fenway Park, and the lineup isn't any less than the Yankees' of the past few years. Maybe he'd bring his "playoff jinx" along for the trip, but for fantasy, there's little doubt the numbers would remain there.
Angels. I think of this as A-Rod's most likely destination, since the Angels have suffered a lack of hitting depth in recent seasons, but their pitching depth already qualifies as championship-caliber. He'd help boost Vladimir Guerrero's stock and vice versa, and if "L.A.'s" pitching-friendly confines worry you, well, was Yankee Stadium really all that friendly to right-handed power hitters? A-Rod, by the way, is a lifetime .332 hitter with 29 homers (one per 10.59 at-bats) and a 1.077 OPS at Angel Stadium, and all of those are noticeably above his career numbers in the categories. Yeah, he'd fit a-OK.
Giants. This one's more of a sleeper choice, I'd think, though one talked about a surprisingly great share. Granted, the Giants shed Barry Bonds' salary this winter, freeing up payroll for a run at A-Rod, but are they really enough a contender to want -- let alone attract -- him as a free agent? It's possible, and I'd bet this is the one landing place fantasy owners most fear. Take note, though: A-Rod is 15-for-24 (.625) with two homers in six career games at AT&T Park, and 22-for-35 (.629) with three homers in nine career games in San Francisco ballparks. Small sample size, sure, but I'd say it's enough to keep me from worrying. A fringe benefit: Nine games annually at Coors Field.
Mets. The Mets made a run at him in 2001 but didn't care for his contract demands, but coming off the finish they did to 2006, they're going to need some sort of shakeup to restore their fans' confidence. A-Rod might be too big a shakeup, though it's a possibility. Adding him would lead to perhaps the most exciting infield in fantasy baseball history: A-Rod at third, Jose Reyes at short, David Wright at second (a shame since he's so fun to watch man the hot corner) and Carlos Delgado at first. Plus, while Shea has hurt A-Rod historically -- he's a .244 hitter with a .764 OPS in 12 career games there -- plopping him between Wright and Carlos Beltran in the lineup is really no less a hitting-friendly setup than the one he enjoyed in pinstripes the past few years.
Yankees. They say they no longer will negotiate with A-Rod, and I believe them. Still, anything is possible in Yankee-land, and does any team have deeper pockets to meet his demands? Nothing changes for A-Rod if he somehow returns -- and more importantly, is welcomed back. Nothing. Yankee Stadium doesn't hurt him a bit; he has topped a .300 batting average and 20 homers at home in each of the past three seasons, and is a .309 hitter with 47 homers and 157 RBIs in his last 162 games there. Wow.
Dodgers. If Joe Torre lands in L.A., as everyone is forecasting, perhaps A-Rod will follow him. Still, I'm betting he follows the money trail, not his former manager. Fortunately, the Dodgers have the cash to afford him, though Dodger Stadium isn't the best of places for him to call home. He's 5-for-39 (.128) without an extra-base hit in 11 career games there, and granted, that's a small sample size. But I suppose the thing that scares me ever-so-slightly with A-Rod is a shift to the National League takes a little off the luster for him in 2008, because he'd be facing an unfamiliar set of pitchers. That goes for the aforementioned Giants and Mets, too, incidentally. It's not enough that I lower my expectations for A-Rod substantially if he changes leagues, but I'd be far more patient if he's so-so (by his standards) in April and early May, and I'd be more apt to expect, say, 40-45 homers than 50-plus. That's still an exceptional season, by the way.
This one might not seem particularly significant, but considering we're talking about a five-time 20/20 man who has averaged 21/20 numbers in homers and steals the past four seasons, I'd say it's somewhat relevant to fantasy. Cameron, who drew a 25-game penalty for testing positive for a banned stimulant for a second time, will now miss all of April, and considering he's a free agent this winter, one has to wonder whether teams might think differently about signing him at all. Cameron might have to settle for a somewhat lesser role, then work his way back into the mix wherever he lands.
Cameron has suffered a bit as a result of playing much of his career in spacious, pitching-friendly ballparks, be it in Seattle, New York or San Diego. Getting out of Petco Park for a more hitting-oriented environment would surely help restore a little of his draft appeal, so keep an eye on where he lands. On the right team, with an outfield vacancy and a park that's at worst in the neutral class, he'd be worth stashing away for the final five months of the season. After all, surprisingly, he has been healthier than people give him credit for, appearing in 140 or more games in nine of the past 10 seasons.
Actually, I feel about the same regarding Upton as I did entering 2007. He's an easy 20/20 man with an outside shot at a 30/30 season, though a guy who averaged one strikeout per 3.08 at-bats is inevitably going to be streaky. The shift to center field full-time -- which I do expect -- should help him, and I see no reason he can't bat .290, hit 25 homers and steal 20-25 bases, with a significant boost in RBIs if he bats cleanup again. He'll be second-base eligible in most leagues, and I'd say he's a top-five fantasy option there, easy.
As for Votto, he'll be a favorite for Rookie of the Year honors. The kid can rake, and the ballpark greatly favors left-handed sluggers. I'm thinking statistically, he'll be a lot like what Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard were as rookies, but the thing to keep in mind is he has deceptive speed, swiping 41 bases combined in the minors from 2006-07. Think a .280-25 kind of season, with upside from there, and perhaps double-digit steals.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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