How this year's playoffs affect next season's fantasy drafts
Fantasy baseball season has become a year-round attraction, but most owners only watch the actual game until the end of September, when the Royals, Nationals and Pirates of the world stop playing games. The real baseball playoffs are a wonderful thing, especially if you have a horse in the race -- way to go Phillies! -- but from a practical fantasy baseball point of view, the stats don't matter, and aren't relevant.
Then again, that doesn't mean the fantasy baseball owner can't learn something from what happens in October. On the contrary, watching players perform at any time can tell us quite a bit about how they might be used the following season, and what their ability level might really be. It's not about the stats in the postseason, because the pitchers face the top hitters on a consistent basis and vice versa, but just watch these guys play, and there's a lot to learn.
I love watching baseball, whether it's my favorite team or not. Here are some things I noticed about the 2008 postseason that I expect to be relevant for fantasy baseball in 2009 and beyond.
Cole Hamels gets overrated: I love the guy for what he did, but this is just too obvious. Fantasy sports are a value game. No player had a better postseason than the Philadelphia ace. He took home all the hardware and nearly became the first pitcher in history to win all five of his postseason starts. Hamels had a 1.80 ERA in the playoffs, with 30 strikeouts and nine walks in 35 innings. Hey, he was pretty good during the regular season as well, ranking sixth on the ESPN Player Rater for starting pitchers. He even appeared on Letterman! The problem is, like Josh Beckett after 2003 with the Marlins, there is no guarantee Hamels wins 20 games, or warrants being drafted higher than he was in 2008. Hamels was the seventh pitcher off the draft board this season, and before October began, I would've agreed that's where Hamels belongs in 2009. Should fantasy owners adjust their perception of Hamels because he breezed through the postseason? Beckett carried the Marlins to a World Series title in a high-profile win over the Yankees in New York, got vastly overrated in fantasy and was good but not dominant the following season. In 2006 his ERA was over 5. It wasn't until 2007 that Beckett became a fantasy monster, then he regressed again. Hamels is terrific, and there's very little risk in making him the seventh pitcher off the board, but don't call him Johan Santana yet, and don't make him one of the top two or three pitchers on draft day.
Other Rays can run: Upton stole bases seemingly at will in the postseason, and he wasn't the only one. Carl Crawford was 7-for-7 in steals, and the team stole 24 bases in 27 attempts. If Upton is likely to regain his power stroke, I think it's equally likely Crawford gets back to his days of swiping 50 bags. Tampa Bay has two legit power sources already, and Crawford really isn't a No. 5 hitter at all. His power was never strong. He should be leading off, probably instead of Akinori Iwamura. The Rays should have an opening in right field, which could be filled with a free agent who would bat fifth and protect Evan Longoria in the order, or internally with one of the kiddies seeking opportunity. I'm looking squarely at Fernando Perez; he stole 189 bases in five minor league seasons, and showed strong walk rates. Maybe the Rays platoon him with Ben Zobrist, who never seemed like he could hit before but in his third season with the Rays slugged 12 home runs in fewer than 200 at-bats, nine of them off right-handed pitching. Either Perez or Zobrist, or even Willy Aybar, could be a draft day sleeper if they get a chance. Maybe it took October for them to get noticed.
Will the Price be right?: David Price is going to be a fantasy star as soon as 2009. His stuff is electric, he'll overpower both lefty and righty hitters, and there's no question at all he's a top-of-the-rotation star in the making. He might not ever get another save chance in his career, people. Like Hamels, he's going to be very, very good, but probably not the statistical monster many drafters are going to expect, and you can blame the postseason for that. Just don't blame Bud Selig -- this isn't his fault. Say Price gets 30 starts next season. Will he win half of them? Will he fan 200 hitters? He's still only 23, and hasn't gone anywhere near 200 innings yet in his young career. Again, don't get me wrong, the guy will be a special pitcher, like Hamels, but October success tends to get pitchers overrated. I don't think this happens with hitters the same way. Target Price in keeper leagues especially, but safe aces like Roy Oswalt and Roy Halladay should be drafted earlier in one-year formats. At least 20, maybe 25 starting pitchers should.
OK, those are the World Series teams, but did we learn anything from the other postseason entrants?
Dodgers: OK, Manny Ramirez can rake, we know this. I don't think he can keep up the pace he set in Los Angeles for an entire season, or postseason, so be careful if you consider him in the third round, wherever he plays. No other Dodger hitter really shined in the playoffs, a lesson for fantasy owners in itself. Andre Ethier didn't knock in a run at all. So, he's great with Manny in the regular season, but not October? His great final two months were likely the outlier. On the pitching side, Hiroki Kuroda won two of the four games this team won in October, and had an underrated regular season as well. He'll be a 14th-round bargain. I'd say we learned Jonathan Broxton can close effectively, but I doubt he's a top-10 closer. The ball Matt Stairs hit is still going.
Cubs: I wouldn't be scared to draft Ryan Dempster because he walked seven in his lone playoff outing, but I don't expect another 17 wins, either. The truth is, we really didn't see enough of the Cubs to decide anything in fantasy. This team hit for six months, so don't let a bad three games for Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez and Geovany Soto scare you off. Soto, by the way, could be the top catcher in fantasy on draft day.
Red Sox: Jon Lester was 1-2 in four starts, but his peripheral numbers were terrific. For 2009, would you rather have Lester or Tampa's Price? I'll take Lester, personally. I don't read into anything I saw from Beckett, as he was clearly not 100 percent. I also think Justin Masterson would be a top-40 starting pitcher if the Red Sox go that route, but I didn't need the postseason to show me that. Like Beckett, I think David Ortiz's October was misleading, though I wouldn't take him in the first three rounds of a draft. Jacoby Ellsbury was benched for Coco Crisp, but the guy stole 50 bases in the regular season. He'll play, and get 600 at-bats. Of all the playoff teams, what we saw from the Red Sox this October might be the most misleading. Oh, we learned Mark Kotsay can play first base, not that it matters for fantasy.
White Sox: I can't say I learned anything from this team, except Ozzie Guillen is not a Javier Vazquez fan, and the staff leader in strikeouts could find himself elsewhere in 2009. The White Sox could give Clayton Richard a rotation spot; he threw well in the Rays series.
Angels: The obvious hitter who emerged in the team's quick playoff exit would be catcher Mike Napoli, who stroked a pair of homers off Beckett. Napoli has big-time power. He smacked 20 home runs in only 78 regular season games, and one has to think he will see a lot more playing time, if his health allows it. He also hit .273 and stole seven bases. Extrapolate his numbers, and this would be a top-5 backstop. Don't go that far, yet, but keep an eye on Napoli after the top 10 catchers leave the draft board. His career slugging percentage in 252 games is an impressive .493. I wasn't very impressed with Howie Kendrick against the Red Sox; two hits in 17 at-bats, with no walks and seven strikeouts. I'm skeptical that batting title will ever come his way, especially since durability is an issue. By the way, I have no doubt Jose Arredondo is the next Francisco Rodriguez, so when K-Rod becomes a Met, you know which closer to nab in round 12.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His new book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.