Cockcroft: Challenge Game Week 1
Each week, Tristan H. Cockcroft offers his strategies for the Baseball Challenge game. Look for his best bargains, busts and daily specials every Sunday.
CATCHER: It's digging deep, but Reds' lefty-killer David Ross (4.6 price tag) battles three left-handers, all of them at Great American Ballpark. He was a .316 hitter with a 1.233 OPS and one homer per 6.9 at-bats against lefties in 2006, so this is a spot where you could save some money. Others to consider: Michael Barrett (5.0), Ronny Paulino (4.8), Jorge Posada (5.3), Jason Varitek (4.8).
FIRST BASE: The Diamondbacks' Conor Jackson (4.8) is batting .304 (17-for-56) in the spring, and he'll begin the year in the heart of the batting order. He kicks off the year with three games at Coors Field (.317 AVG in 10 career G), and for the week, he's got an extra game (seven total). Others to consider: Jason Giambi (5.5), Derrek Lee (6.1), Justin Morneau (6.1), Kevin Youkilis (4.6).
SECOND BASE: The Reds' Brandon Phillips (5.5) did manage .299/.774/34.3 rates against left-handers, and .301/.799/30.7 numbers at home, in 2006, and he'll play six games at home at Great American Ballpark, three of them against lefties. Plus, he's a No. 3 hitter! Others to consider: Robinson Cano (5.8), Orlando Hudson (5.0), Howie Kendrick 5.4, Jeff Kent (5.1).
THIRD BASE: I'm tempted to go for another Red, but Diamondbacks 3B Chad Tracy's (5.0) career numbers at Coors Field -- .361 AVG, 5 HR, .988 OPS, 24 G -- are too good to ignore. And don't fret about those four week-ending games in Washington; the Nationals' staff is weak. Others to consider: Edwin Encarnacion (4.8), Morgan Ensberg (5.0), Mike Lowell (5.0), Alex Rodriguez (6.4).
SHORTSTOP: With the Red Sox likely to pile on the runs in three games at Kansas City and then three more in Texas, Julio Lugo (5.4) should be a fine choice. Incidentally, he's a .339 hitter with an .898 OPS, 12 RBIs and 15 runs scored in 16 career games at Kauffman Stadium. Others to consider: Orlando Cabrera (4.9), Stephen Drew (5.0), David Eckstein (4.4), Derek Jeter (6.2).
LEFT FIELD: The Astros' Carlos Lee (6.1) has to face three tough Cardinals right-handers -- Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and Anthony Reyes -- but he should pound Pirates pitching to open the week. Hey, at least Lee's six games all come at home! Others to consider: Adam Dunn (5.7), Craig Monroe (4.8), Manny Ramirez (6.2), Chris B. Young (4.8).
CENTER FIELD: The Yankees play six home games, three against the Devil Rays and three against the Orioles, against whom they were a combined 25-12 in 2006. Johnny Damon (5.8) hits righties and lefties, and should pace the team's potent attack in Week 1 of the season. Others to consider: Eric Byrnes (4.9), Coco Crisp (5.0), Ken Griffey Jr. (5.0), Torii Hunter (5.3).
RIGHT FIELD: Most people look to David Ortiz or Manny Ramirez as the run producers in the Boston lineup, but No. 5 hitter J.D. Drew (5.3) makes a fine choice for this week. The Red Sox face a favorable schedule, and Drew should receive plenty of RBI opportunities. Others to consider: Bobby Abreu (6.0), Michael Cuddyer (5.3), Ryan Freel (5.0), Vladimir Guerrero (6.3).
DESIGNATED HITTER: A No. 3 hitter in a decent offense at a low, low price? Yes, please. The Mariners' Jose Vidro (4.4) is hitting .333 (23-for-69) in the spring, and he's a lifetime .325 hitter with 14 homers, 68 RBI and an .855 OPS in 135 games against American League opponents. Also consider: Hideki Matsui (5.7).
PITCHING STAFF: You'll pay to get them, but the San Diego Padres (5.8) face a favorable schedule, including three games at San Francisco and three at home against the Rockies. San Diego's rotation is experienced and strong in WHIP, and the bullpen is deep and talented. Others to consider: Arizona Diamondbacks (4.8), Los Angeles Dodgers (5.3), New York Yankees (5.0), Toronto Blue Jays (5.1).
CATCHER: The Braves' Brian McCann (5.7 price tag) was a more effective hitter against right-handers (.351 AVG, 1.001 OPS, 16.6 AB/HR) than left-handers (.266/.809/31.3) in 2006, and he'll face three lefties in Week 1, including Cole Hamels and Tom Glavine. Others to avoid: Ramon Hernandez (5.3), Jason Kendall (5.0), Damian Miller (5.3), Mike Napoli (5.0).
FIRST BASE: The Giants' Rich Aurilia (5.0) is another player whose value is more in a platoon role, as he was a more ordinary hitter against right-handers (.276/.755/24.4) than left-handers (.347/1.086/13.4) in 2006. San Francisco, incidentally, faces five righties in Week 1. Others to avoid: Prince Fielder (5.6), Ryan Garko (4.6), Lyle Overbay (5.0), Ryan Shealy (4.8).
SECOND BASE: Though the Rockies intend to start Kazuo Matsui (5.1), he's too risky at the price. Remember, Coors Field doesn't play that much towards hitters early in the year, and Colorado then finishes out the week with three games at San Diego's cavernous Petco Park. Others to avoid: Josh Barfield (5.2), Jose Lopez (5.0), Dan Uggla (5.6), Rickie Weeks (5.5).
THIRD BASE: As you'll read below, the Royals' Mark Teahen (4.9) could have some spot-starter use in Week 1, but his owners need be patient based on his difficult schedule overall. He has to face Curt Schilling, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jeremy Bonderman. Others to avoid: Pedro Feliz (4.7), Wes Helms (5.3), Melvin Mora (5.0), Scott Rolen (5.5).
SHORTSTOP: The White Sox's Juan Uribe (5.0) is hardly a consistent hitter, with a .258 batting average and .730 OPS for his career, making him overpriced as the 10th-most expensive shortstop. Though he has six games at U.S. Cellular Field, the home park hasn't helped him that much in his career. Others to avoid: Jason Bartlett (5.0), J.J. Hardy (4.9), Miguel Tejada (6.2), Omar Vizquel (5.0).
LEFT FIELD: Neither the Yankees' Melky Cabrera (4.7) nor the Royals' Reggie Sanders (4.6) is projected to start for his team to begin the season, meaning neither player will get nearly the at-bats you'll need to rack up points in the early weeks. At best, each might earn only one or two starts in Week 1. Others to avoid: Pat Burrell (5.1), Carl Crawford (6.3), Shannon Stewart (5.0).
CENTER FIELD: The Devil Rays' Rocco Baldelli might be limited to designated-hitter duties for Week 1, and he could miss some time to rest his hamstring. Considering the Devil Rays face the tough Yankees and Blue Jays staffs, they might take it easy with Baldelli to begin the year. Others to avoid: Jim Edmonds (5.0), Darin Erstad (4.0), Corey Patterson (5.4), Willy Taveras (5.1).
RIGHT FIELD: Though he should enjoy a fine career, Devil Rays rookie Delmon Young (5.5) didn't hit a homer all spring, and he struck out 13 times in 68 at-bats. In other words, he has some learning to do, and the experienced Yankee and Blue Jays staffs could make him look foolish. Others to avoid: Andre Ethier (4.9), Jeff Francoeur (5.5), Jose Guillen (5.2), Brad Hawpe (5.0).
DESIGNATED HITTER: With Baldelli needing to serve as Tampa Bay's DH, Jonny Gomes (4.8) will have trouble finding at-bats in Week 1. His four home runs this spring serve as encouraging signs, but it'll take time before he's ready to make much of a fantasy impact. Also avoid: Jim Thome (5.7).
PITCHING STAFF: The St. Louis Cardinals (5.0) are gambling on a lot of guys who either lack starter's experience -- Braden Looper and Adam Wainwright -- or a great track record -- Kip Wells. Their matchups against the Mets and Astros could prove challenging. Others to avoid: Atlanta Braves (4.5), Chicago White Sox (4.7), Pittsburgh Pirates (4.6), Texas Rangers (4.5).
MONDAY: Diamondbacks 3B Chad Tracy (5.0 price tag) has long been great against right-handers, batting .311 with an .877 OPS and one homer per 26.2 at-bats for his career, and he loves Coors Field, too, with .361/.989/19.4 lifetime rates there. Also, against Aaron Cook, he's a .462 career hitter (12-for-26) with a 1.171 OPS.
TUESDAY: Staying at Coors, Rockies 1B Todd Helton (5.3) consistently provides All-Star numbers in his home park, with .338/.976/34.4 rates in 2006 alone and .371/1.141/14.8 stats there for his career. He'll battle long-time foe Livan Hernandez, against whom he's a .529 lifetime hitter (27-for-51) with a 1.427 OPS.
WEDNESDAY: Angels RF Vladimir Guerrero (6.3) might be the fifth-most expensive player in the game, but he also owns the Rangers, with .431/1.288/10.6 rates in 54 career games. Plus, he'll be facing Brandon McCarthy, a home-run prone right-hander who has averaged one homer per 19.1 at-bats for his career.
THURSDAY: Reds 3B Edwin Encarnacion (4.8) managed .323/.945/27.4 numbers at Great American Ballpark in 2006, and right-handers didn't give him much trouble, either (.287/.833/29.3). He's a fine choice facing the Cubs' Jason Marquis, against whom he's 4-for-7 (.571 AVG) with two home runs for his career.
FRIDAY: Blue Jays DH Frank Thomas (5.1) has six career at-bats against the Devil Rays' Casey Fossum, and in them, he has two home runs and four RBIs. He has .326/1.104/11.7 career rates against left-handers, had .245/.967/11.8 numbers against them in 2006, and has .337/1.076/15.8 career stats at Tampa Bay's Tropicana Field.
SATURDAY: Royals 3B Mark Teahen (4.9) had .296/.896/17.9 rates against right-handers, and .317/.915/23.1 numbers at home, in 2006. He has had a productive spring, batting .338 (23-for-68) with four home runs, and faces quite the favorable matchup against Tigers fifth starter Chad Durbin (1.619 career WHIP).
SUNDAY: Pirates RF Xavier Nady (4.4) has long dominated left-handers, with .327/.880/30.8 career rates and .336/.969/17.8 numbers in 2006, and he'll be battling the Reds' Eric Milton, a homer-prone lefty. For his career, Nady's a .386 hitter (17-for-44) with three homers and a 1.108 ERA at Great American Ballpark.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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