Karabell: How is Lofton still a free agent?
While Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens continue to make news for off-field transgressions, it's becoming more and more obvious they won't be performing on a baseball field near you anytime soon. I get that. The problem with them is they don't merely bring considerable skills to the table, but distraction as well.
You would be surprised at how many teams could use someone like this. For the record, the major league average for on-base percentage by leadoff hitters in 2007 was .345, a bit higher than that in the AL, a tad lower in the NL. No team finished the season with a sub-.300 OBP from its leadoff men, with Washington and Houston bringing up the rear at .308 and .309, respectively. That's bad, folks. It's so bad that the middle-of-the-order hitters on those teams who didn't accrue the RBIs you might have expected, like Ryan Zimmerman and Lance Berkman for starters, should get some sort of pass.
This season there are seven teams currently floundering with a leadoff on-base percentage on the wrong side of .308, and these teams could use some help. Give Kenny a call! As not just a fantasy baseball owner, but a baseball fan and a simulation league player, I can tell you it's a lot harder to score runs when the leadoff men aren't on base. A great example of how this affects fantasy baseball is what Derrek Lee did for the Cubs in 2005. Lee hit 46 home runs that season, added 50 doubles, slugged a monstrous .662 and finished merely third in the MVP voting behind Albert Pujols and Andruw Jones (51 homers) because he knocked in a "paltry" 107 runs. Andruw Jones beat him out? It was the RBI total, I'm convinced. Lee should have had about 150, but Cubs leadoff men had an embarrassing .299 on-base percentage, thanks to Dusty Baker forcing Corey Patterson, Jerry Hairston Jr. and Neifi Perez into the top spot in the lineup. Hmm, aren't a few of those guys in Baker's current lineup? Meanwhile, I owned Lee the following season on a simulation team, gave him numerous on-base specialists at the top of the order, and he set that league's record with 201 RBIs! What a season!
That wouldn't have happened in the majors, of course, but certainly one reason the mercurial Josh Hamilton is on pace for 169 RBIs in 161 games is because the Rangers are putting men on base. Their leadoff hitters are fifth with a .372 OBP, and the No. 2 hitters are eighth. Meanwhile, Matt Holliday of the Rockies is on pace for just 91 RBIs. Blame Willy Taveras (.304 OBP), and his manager Clint Hurdle for sticking with him in the leadoff spot.
Not every team lacking a good leadoff hitter is a perfect fit for someone like Lofton, but here are the seven teams in baseball with an embarrassingly low on-base percentage (below .308) from that spot. You tell me it doesn't make sense to sign Lofton.
Oakland Athletics: As a team, the A's are actually No. 10 in team OBP, thanks to the Jacks and the Sweeneys. That would be Jack Cust (.434) and Jack Hannahan (.400), as well as Mike Sweeney (.378) and Ryan Sweeney (.343). After that, it's not so pretty. Catcher Kurt Suzuki has more than half the team's plate appearances in the leadoff spot, but let me tell you, it's not working out. His batting average there is .200, his OBP is .265. Travis Buck has posted even worse numbers there. Club leadoff hitters have a .198 batting average and .254 OBP. Look, you signed Frank Thomas to a deal, so you're obviously trying to contend, and you have the pitching to do so. But something must be done about the top of the order. Lofton had a .367 on-base percentage in 2007, and .376 when he was the leadoff hitter, and you have a hole in center field and leadoff. Some catchers have the speed and on-base ability to lead off, but Suzuki isn't one of them.
Minnesota Twins: I thought Gomez was better than Bourn back in March, and I still think so. Gomez isn't drawing walks, either; he's currently on pace for 23 walks and 181 strikeouts. Wow. However, when I watch him play, I see a super-raw 22-year-old, and when I watch Bourn I see a formed Dave Roberts. Gomez is going to get a lot better. He's going to develop power and, like an Alfonso Soriano type, eventually draw some walks. The Twins have nobody getting on base other than Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Really, Mauer should be leading off since his slugging percentage is about the same as his on-base percentage, and he has fewer home runs than Brad Ausmus, but the Twins have nobody else to hit second. Why not add Lofton where struggling Jason Kubel and Craig Monroe are eating at-bats?
Chicago Cubs: This one isn't so easy to solve because Lou Piniella wants Alfonso Soriano to be happy, and Soriano says he's happy only when he's leading off. Center field remains a problem for this team, as Felix Pie just can't hit and Reed Johnson is more of a fourth outfielder than a starter. Jim Edmonds isn't the answer, unless you're looking for a broken-down guy to hit a few home runs. Lofton would clearly be this team's best leadoff and center-field option. Back in March, the division-rival Reds, who had and still have the same problem, contacted Lofton, but the two sides couldn't agree to terms. The Cubs have money to spend, and I'm surprised they'd rather have Edmonds fanning in the seventh spot of the lineup than Lofton getting on base near the top. Overall, the Cubs' leadoff hitters are hitting .225, with a .282 OBP.
Kansas City Royals: The Royals and Tigers aren't in dire straits for Lofton because they have center fielders they like. But those guys aren't off to great starts, and they do have room for Lofton in the outfield or at DH. Kansas City didn't get production when Joey Gathright was leading off (.262 OBP over 80 at-bats), but David DeJesus has been better (.354 OBP). The problem for fantasy owners is that DeJesus has no power and not much base-stealing speed, and on most teams he wouldn't be a starter. But the Royals aren't contending and don't need a 40-something outfielder. All the other teams listed here are either contending or think they should be. As long as DeJesus plays the way he is now, and stays healthy, the Royals will generate more RBI chances for the middle of the order. Whether the punchless Jose Guillen, Mark Teahen and Billy Butler can take advantage is another story.
Detroit Tigers: The Tigers are No. 24 in on-base percentage from their leadoff spot, but like the team just ahead of them (Philly), now that the leadoff hitter is back off the DL, this problem should get better. Then again, neither Curtis Granderson nor Jimmy Rollins is a high on-base guy. They are exciting, though. Regardless, the Tigers are currently using a Matt Joyce-Marcus Thames platoon of sorts, and Lofton gets on base better than those guys. Also, I have doubts as to how long Gary Sheffield is going to last before he's sent to the DL. The Tigers will be fine at the top of their lineup. What they really need is Barry Bonds. Ready for the circus?
Kenny Lofton is owned in about half of my leagues, as owners figure this guy should find work at some point. It might not be with one of these teams, but rather the Padres or Braves or some other team that thinks it should be contending and has an outfield hole. Either way, don't forget about Lofton, as his skill set would still work at his age. What's really distracting is having your leadoff hitter not get on base.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com fantasy. You can e-mail him here.
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