Hot Stove Preview: Whose fantasy value is at stake this offseason?
Sorry, Philadelphia sports fans, time does not stop just because you ended a 25-year championship drought. Congratulations, Phillies, on your World Series title, but come Monday, it's back to business, preparing for your title defense in 2009.
Think the Phillies deserve a much-needed break? Think again. They know better than anyone how important it is to be mindful of roster structuring 365 days a year (366 in this leap year). Exactly 10 days after the final pitch of the 2007 World Series, they acquired an integral piece of their 2008 championship: Brad Lidge. Without that trade, the argument can easily be made they don't win the World Series.
So, while many fantasy baseball owners have turned their attention to fantasy football, just like in the real game, the smart owners are the ones who remain mindful all 365 days, the ones ready to pounce on that proverbial "Lidge trade." Or, at the very least, they're on top of the deal and prepared to evaluate its ramifications.
Fortunately, you won't be alone in your analysis. We'll be here all winter to keep you up to date on the happenings in Major League Baseball. A guy like me, for instance, I never sleep. OK, I lied; I sleep (when my son lets me), but I never stop watching baseball. (Can't wait to see that Royals-Yankees "Instant Classic" next Thursday evening, who's with me?)
To get our offseason rolling, I'm providing my "Winter Preview," a capsule look at the 10 players most likely to see their fantasy value change as a result of a potential winter move. Remember those key words: Value change; it's not just a list of top names on the trade/free-agent market (though, obviously, many make the cut).
Bobby Abreu: When I think back to some of our in-house chatter over the past season, I think back to our preseason rankings meeting, when Will Harris and I engaged in the debate of relevance of a player's lineup position to his fantasy value. Abreu was the primary example -- I should say about my only example -- because few players in baseball enjoy the advantage of getting to bat behind Johnny Damon and Derek Jeter, both .360-plus on-base types, and ahead of Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi, both of whom slugged .500-plus (A-Rod by a noticeable amount). It's such rare cases -- I can count them on one hand -- that warrant the most attention, because roles change, especially when the player in question reaches free agency, as Abreu has. Chances are he'll remain in pinstripes, but that's a team loaded with corner outfield/DH types, so it's no guarantee. And if Abreu heads elsewhere, there's no guarantee he'll be slotted second or third in a lineup, where he can offer the stolen-base and run potential needed to remain a top-50 overall player. Going across town to the Mets might be the only other situation that comes to mind in which his fantasy value probably wouldn't be due for a decline in 2009.
Milton Bradley: One of the less-prominent names on the list, Bradley is nevertheless coming off an extraordinary walk year, ranking sixth in baseball in batting average (.321) and fourth in OPS (.999). Problem is, he batted 68 points higher at Rangers Ballpark than he did on the road, and was almost 275 points better in OPS at home, too. Plus, his temperament has long been a topic of discussion, and he's a massive health risk, with 2008 representing only the second time in his career he played in 125-plus games (and it was barely, at 126). Bradley will probably be on the move yet again this winter, leaving perhaps the most favorable spot for him in his career. He can't help but decline significantly in value, barring unexpectedly landing in, say, Colorado.
A.J. Burnett: There aren't many people out there who legitimately believe he'll decide anything other than to opt out of his current contract with the Blue Jays as early as Monday, so for all intents and purposes, let's call him a free agent. Besides, even if Burnett sticks in Toronto, I liken his situation to that of Alex Rodriguez a year ago; why wouldn't he opt out and seek a stronger deal even if it's from his current team?
Logic might dictate that getting out of the American League East, and away from the Rays, Red Sox and Yankees, might help his ratios, but if you believe that, you'd be wrong. Incredibly, in 35 career starts against those teams, Burnett is 18-7 with a 2.72 ERA and 1.07 WHIP. That bodes well should he re-up with Toronto, but yes, getting out of the division would help, if only because his chances at maintaining a Cy Young-caliber performance against those perennial contenders -- safe to call the Rays that now -- aren't as good as they'd be if, say, he returned to the National League.
Matt Holliday: He takes a good share of heat for being a Coors Field creation, and to an extent, his critics are right. Check out his statistical splits in his past 162 games played at Coors, compared to the same number on the road:
Coors games: .353 BA, 44 HRs, 153 RBIs, 138 R's, 1.089 OPS.
Road games: .298 BA, 24 HRs, 92 RBIs, 110 R's, .858 OPS.
Sooooo ... He's A-Rod in his prime at Coors, and Nate McLouth plus 20 points in batting average on the road? (Look it up, eerily similar numbers.) Of course, if Holliday did leave Coors, you'd have to boost the road numbers accounting for the 81 home games he'd get. Remember, he accrued those numbers only in road games, and the league-average hitter batted 12 points with 39 more points of OPS at home than on the road in 2008. Even on a team in a neutral ballpark, Holliday, who turns 29 in January, should easily be a .300-30-110 hitter. That's a top-25 fantasy player, but it's not a .330-35-125 hitter, which is roughly what he averaged per 162 games the past three seasons.
Expect the Angels, Mets and Red Sox to make a push for Holliday's services. With the Angels' depth in young pitching talent, they have to be considered the favorites.
Derek Lowe: Some people are already hailing him as a potential free-agent value, thanks to his durability -- he has made 32 or more starts in each of the past seven seasons -- and affordability compared to the bigger names on the market. Problem is, Lowe the fantasy pitcher isn't as attractive as Lowe the real-life pitcher. Innings-eaters tend to be matchups specialists for our purposes, and on certain teams, he might shape up as that and that only. Check his home/road splits in his past 35 starts in each:
Dodger Stadium starts: 19-11 record, 2.67 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 236 IP, 166 K's, 16 HRs.
Road starts: 11-14 record, 4.29 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 203 1/3 IP, 145 K's, 19 HRs.
In other words, put Lowe in a pitcher-friendly venue like Dodger Stadium and he can be that mid-threes ERA, 1.25-WHIP, 140-strikeout starter. Put him back in the American League in a neutral-to-hitter friendly ballpark -- like, say, with the Yankees -- and his ERA might climb back to four, if not higher. Lowe's win potential might be stronger on such a team, but you'd have to pick and choose his matchups more carefully than you would if he landed with, say, the Braves, Cardinals, or remained in L.A.
Jake Peavy: Like Holliday, he's a trade candidate, and like Holliday, he's destined for a drop in value if he's dealt as a result to the impact of his current home ballpark. Petco Park ranked the most pitcher-friendly ballpark in baseball in terms of runs scored in each of the past three seasons. Peavy's splits in his past 35 starts, each at home and on the road:
Petco starts: 16-10 record, 2.10 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 240 1/3 IP, 263 K's, 10 HRs.
Road starts: 19-9 record, 3.42 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 215 2/3 IP, 206 K's, 26 HRs.
First of all, no, I can't explain the stark contrast between his home and road records, especially accounting for his diminished performance on the road. Chalk it up to an anomaly. But the bottom line is that Peavy would be a Cy Young lock if he pitched entirely at Petco; he'd merely be on the candidates list if he always pitched on the road. Going back to the point about Holliday, the league-average pitcher managed an ERA a half-run better and a WHIP one-tenth of a point lower at home than on the road, so Peavy in your league-average situation would still be a 3.00-ERA, 1.15-WHIP, K-per-inning, ace starter. That's not a far cry from what he is today, but what sets Peavy aside from Holliday is that as a pitcher -- they see smaller statistical sample sizes working every five days -- would be at greater risk for a steep decline depending on where he winds up.
The good news: He can control where he winds up, thanks to his no-trade clause, and that probably means on a National League team, like the Braves. And that'd mean only a slight drop in value.
Manny Ramirez: This one is all a matter of motivation, and if you don't believe that, obviously you stopped paying to baseball sometime around the All-Star break. Ramirez, driven to show up the Red Sox, who traded him at the deadline, carried the Dodgers almost single-handedly into the postseason, and now he enters the winter on one of the highest notes of his career. He'll earn a massive, multi-year deal, probably from the Dodgers, Mets or, as some rumors have it, even the Blue Jays, but the question is, will he remain so motivated to perform? Sure, he might in Toronto, or with the Yankees, where he'd get a chance to battle the Red Sox 18 times a season. (Not that the Yankees look like a viable choice.) Beyond that, one must wonder how inspired he'll be to maintain a 1.031 OPS into his age-37 season.
Francisco Rodriguez: In setting the new single-season record for saves (62), K-Rod not only set himself up for a huge payday, he also became the ninth pitcher in history to save at least 60 percent of his team's wins. Another, more troubling fact: He's only the second closer to have done it while pitching for a 90-win team (former record-holder Bobby Thigpen was the first). In other words, Rodriguez's save performance fit the classification of "highly unlikely," and with the Angels probably set to replace him with Jose Arredondo, he'll have a hard time finding a team situation so perfectly ideal as in L.A. Pitchers on 90-win teams tend to finish a lot closer to 40 saves than 60, because the better the team, the less likely you're to play in a high number of close contests. I've got him ticketed for the Mets, who desperately need bullpen help, and for all the benefits of a shift to the National League, if K-Rod loses even 25 percent of his save production, he'll be a bit of a disappointment. Most troublesome: His WHIP ballooned to 1.33 after the All-Star break.
CC Sabathia: This one's more about the run support than any change to his other fantasy numbers, because Sabathia is consistent, a workhorse and a man in the prime of his career. Though it's true that his hefty workloads of the 2007-08 seasons will almost assuredly come back to haunt him, probably late in the life of the free-agent contract he signs this winter, he should be fine at the bare minimum for 2009.
But back to the run support: His number was 4.41 for the Indians to start this season, and he won six of 18 starts. That increased to 4.96 for the Brewers, for whom he won 11 of 17 starts. Give him five-plus and he'd be the closest thing to a 20-win lock you get in today's game, and that's just what he'd get as a Yankee, Angel or Dodger. For the record, I can't see how the Yankees will get outbid for his services, if he's truly after the most money.
Mark Teixeira: He hasn't been able to match his 43-homer, 144-RBI output of 2005 in the three seasons since, and that's serving to make him a tad bit of an overrated fantasy player. After all, Teixeira finished 22nd on this year's Player Rater; wasn't he supposed to be a lock top-10 player overall by this stage of his career? I think I can put my finger on the reason: He was an early-career ballpark creation. Take a look (per 162 games):
Rangers Ballpark: .302 BA, 39 HRs, 137 RBIs, 112 R's, .954 OPS
Everywhere else: .282 BA, 35 HRs, 111 RBIs, 94 R's, .896 OPS
Not that the latter is a poor player, but considering he's a first baseman, it's a stretch to call him much more than a No. 25-type overall. Of course, signing with the Red Sox or Yankees, and their deep lineups, would boost his runs/RBIs potential, which might be enough to make him a viable second-round pick ... again.
Other players to watch: You might think Pat Burrell's fantasy value would dip outside of Citizens Bank Park, but the numbers don't support it. He has 30 home runs and an .898 OPS in his past 162 games there, and 37 and a .900 in his past 162 road games. Brian Fuentes' value is entirely tied to whether he lands with a team in need of a closer, but in terms of his ratios, he'd probably shave at least a good quarter-run off his ERA getting out of Coors Field. Rafael Furcal might get his first chance to play for a team that doesn't call a pitcher-friendly venue its home. Of course, he needs to stay healthy for an entire year in order to see any fantasy value increase wherever he lands. Orlando Hudson will be an attractive free agent to several clubs looking to shore up their defense, and if he lands in the right spot, on a potent enough offensive team with an opening in the upper third of the lineup, his runs scored would benefit. Landing with the Yankees wouldn't qualify; he'd stand little chance at unseating either Damon or Jeter in the top two spots. Health, as always, is the primary question mark with Ben Sheets, but it probably wouldn't behoove him to land with an American League East team, like the Red Sox or Yankees.
We are days away from the one-year anniversary of that Lidge mega-deal, so the hot-stove season should heat up quickly. Let the bidding begin!
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball, football and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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