Some hot starts don't seem so crazy
Nine surprising early-season performances that could be sign of greater things
It's a statement naysayers frequently sling back at prognosticators, disputing their bold forecasts with similar dismissiveness to what fantasy owners directed toward Washington Nationals pitchers during their preseason drafts. That is, any Nationals pitcher not named Stephen Strasburg.
"Crazy" can take on many forms, however. There's such wild, "crazy" statements as, "Wade Davis will have a better fantasy season than Tim Lincecum," or "This is the year Delmon Young breaks through with 40-plus homers."
Or, the "crazy" questions we field countless times at this early stage of the season, like "Is so-and-so-hot-starting-player going to maintain his current 68-homer pace?" or "Should I give up on this so-and-so-slow-starter I picked in the third round?"
Sorting out the "crazy" from the somewhat sane isn't an easy task in April, and it's understandable that fantasy owners, sometimes, have itchy trigger fingers. This is to a degree a reactionary game, and knee-jerk decisions are common.
That doesn't, however, mean they're always appropriate.
With only nine days' action in the books, it's still a little early to get a true read on how much the baseball landscape has changed. But looking at the early returns, here are nine observations that hardly seem "crazy":
Nelson Cruz among the league leaders in homers and RBIs: Six of his first seven games came at hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark, where Cruz batted .286 and clubbed 18 home runs in 2009. Plus, it's not like he wasn't an elite power source last year, hitting 33 homers overall, and if you project his 2009 numbers to a full, uninterrupted season (he missed 15 games on the disabled list in August), it would be 36. And that's despite the fact that Cruz didn't seem at all his usual self even after his return late in the year. If you combine everything he has done from 2008-10, Cruz has appeared in 166 games, batted .281, hit 45 homers, driven in 113 runs and stolen 23 bases, numbers that make him look like a top-25 player overall. Can he get there? He'll need to stay healthy, but it's hardly crazy to say he can.
Brett Gardner a .294 hitter on track for 50-plus steals: No one seemed to give this guy any credit in the preseason, perhaps assuming that the New York Yankees couldn't possibly be content with anything short of an MVP candidate filling Johnny Damon's shoes in left field. Gardner, though, was quite the spark plug in a part-time role for the Yankees last season, and everything in his career profile fits the part of the decent-average, high-steals performer, in other words, a candidate to be to 2010 what Nyjer Morgan was to 2009. Marcus Thames is a threat to swipe starts from Gardner versus left-handers, but considering how often the Yankees use the speedster as a pinch-runner, a run at 50 steals is well within his reach.
Vladimir Guerrero a top-50 fantasy hitter: Top 50 might border on "crazy," but would anyone be entirely shocked if he mounts a serious challenge for that status? Certainly in his home games he'll possess that type of value, after going 12-for-24 in the season-opening homestand to raise his lifetime batting average at Rangers Ballpark to .406. Health is Guerrero's primary obstacle, but the designated hitter role should protect him somewhat, and he's in about the most favorable circumstance he could for fantasy success.
Chase Headley a top-10 fantasy third baseman: Picking Headley for that status at the position is an effective endorsement of him as a candidate to bat .300, as he did during his minor league career (.301), but should anyone be shocked if he does? Focusing the microscope upon him, Headley batted .293 after the All-Star break, .319 during spring training and .448 during his first seven games of 2010. He's a much better hitter than people give him credit.
Scott Podsednik again a solid source of stolen bases: Through nine days of the 2010 season, Podsednik is tied for the big league lead in the category, and while forecasting him to maintain that lead is a statement that indeed is crazy, why can't he at least mount a challenge for top-10 status in that department? He did swipe 30 bags a year ago, and 40 or more on four occasions previously in his career. When examining Podsednik, I can't help but draw back to my comments of Jan. 11, when he initially signed with the Kansas City Royals: "Podsednik will be hard-pressed to repeat 2009's .304 batting average, as that was largely driven by an unreasonably high .300 BABIP on ground balls, 36 points higher than his career mark in the category. Adjust that number to his career norms and he's more of a .280-hitting, .340-OBP type, which is a much more appropriate expectation and more likely to result in a 20- to 25-steal campaign." Perhaps those numbers today could be boosted to .290, .360 and 30, but what's bad about that?
Colby Rasmus on pace for (at least) a 20/20 season: Let's focus on the improvements he has made in terms of plate discipline, because if there's anything that supports Rasmus' 2010 breakout potential, it's that. He walked 16 times during spring training and has nine more in his first seven regular-season games, and according to Inside Edge, has a chase percentage early in the count of 7 percent (17 percent big league average), a chase percentage with two strikes of 11 percent (36) and a chase percentage on non-competitive pitches (not near the strike zone) of 5 percent (18) so far this season. Last year, he was at or above the big league average in all three categories. The St. Louis Cardinals might continue to platoon Rasmus, worried that he has problems with lefties, but 20/20 is not an unreasonable expectation. In fact, while his current paces of 46 homers and 23 steals might be a crazy prediction, would 30/20 be? Perhaps not.
Ian Stewart well on track for a 30-100 campaign: Not that fantasy owners really doubted Stewart's power, but the fact that he's getting everyday at-bats has to be regarded a welcome surprise to his owners. When Melvin Mora signed with the Colorado Rockies in February, the worry was that he might wind up in a straight platoon at third base with Stewart. Not so; Stewart has started all six Rockies games thus far, including all three versus left-handed starters. The fact that he's already 3-for-10 with a home run against southpaws bodes extremely well for his chances at 30-plus homers, plus a more respectable batting average than 2009's .228.
Rickie Weeks a productive, top-10 fantasy second baseman: It's not Weeks' level of production that fantasy owners doubt; it's his ability to stay healthy. So while it might be crazy to say, "Rickie Weeks will still be healthy on July 1," it's hardly crazy to say he's a must-start for every single game in which he can remain in the active lineup. Remember, he batted .272 with nine homers and 24 RBIs in 37 games before succumbing to wrist surgery in May 2009, which projected to a full year would be 39 homers and 105 RBIs. This year he has .348-2-4 numbers through seven games. Ride this guy's streak for as long as you can, and once he makes his inevitable, annual DL trip, simply say, "Thanks for the short-term help, Rickie."
Chris Young finally figures it out: Perhaps the boldest statement of the bunch, the way Young has performed so far this calendar year, between spring training and his first six regular-season contests, I'm willing to gamble that the Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder is a reliable weekly fantasy contributor again, finally. His .306 spring batting average and three home runs aren't what impressed; it's the 10 walks he drew compared to just nine strikeouts. In addition, Young whiffed only three times in his first 24 regular-season at-bats, though it'd be nice to see him earn his first free pass soon. He's plenty capable of returning to the 30-homer plateau, where he resided in 2007. So far, he seems right on track for it.
TOP 100 HITTERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Detroit Tigers: If there were any concerns about his off-the-field issues of the past calendar year, Cabrera seems to have answered them with a white-hot start. He insisted throughout the preseason that he was focused on baseball, and a .481 batting average, two homers and eight RBIs demonstrate that he's without question still one of the top 10 talents in the fantasy game.
Kelly Johnson, 2B, Arizona Diamondbacks: Right-handers gave this lefty hitter a world of trouble in 2009, limiting him to .188/.281/.314 (AVG/OBP/SLG) rates, which is why it's nice to see him off to a scorching start against them this season. Johnson hit only four homers versus righties in 223 at-bats in 2009, but this year he already has three homers in 15 at-bats against them.
Martin Prado, 2B/1B/3B, Atlanta Braves: Sensing a theme of second basemen with ties to the Atlanta Braves organization? Prado, who supplanted the aforementioned Johnson at second base in Atlanta last season, has extended his hot hitting of 2009 into 2010, including leading the majors in batting average (.519) heading into Tuesday's games. Buying Prado means investing in a player whose primary trait is his ability to hit for a high batting average, but should anyone really be upset with a player getting everyday at-bats whose career mark in the category is .314?
Vernon Wells, OF, Toronto Blue Jays: His value is on the rise, obviously, after he swatted five home runs in his first seven games, but the primary reason he's not included in the group above is that it would seemingly be crazy to declare him an instant guarantee to maintain a 116-homer pace or even a more realistic 40 homers. Wells has never hit more than 33 homers in a single year, hasn't hit more than 20 since 2006, and hit four of those five at Rangers Ballpark, one of the most hitter-friendly environments in baseball. In four games since then, he's 2-for-15 with one extra-base hit (the other homer). Wells absolutely belongs in lineups for as long as he remains hot, but don't buy into his hot start as a long-term trend.
Julio Borbon, OF, Texas Rangers: While many of the Texas Rangers' hitters were feasting upon Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners pitching during the season's opening week, Borbon was having all sorts of trouble at the plate, amounting to a 1-for-25 performance during his first six games. Most troubling, he put 12 batted balls in the air compared to eight on the ground, whereas in 2009, 54.2 percent of his balls in play were on the ground. Remember that old line from "Major League," that a speedy player -- in that case Willie "Mays" Hayes -- should be hitting the ball on the ground and legging them out? Borbon might be doing a lot of push-ups at this rate, or worse, losing at-bats to fourth outfielder David Murphy in the near future.
Chris Iannetta, C, Colorado Rockies: In addition to his .083 batting average through the season's first week, Iannetta's fantasy owners should be similarly troubled by the fact that he started just three of the Colorado Rockies' first six games. That gives credence to manager Jim Tracy's preseason plan to divvy up the catching at-bats evenly between Iannetta and Miguel Olivo, though Iannetta is the one whose value suffers because he's the one who had the far greater upside of the two entering camp.
Nate McLouth, OF, Atlanta Braves: After batting just .118 with only two extra-base hits all spring, McLouth has extended his poor play into the regular season, hitting .118 without an extra-base hit through his first six contests. Perhaps the hamstring injury that limited him late at camp is still an issue? Whatever the cause, McLouth's owners might not be able to be patient with him much longer, needing to bench him until such time as he either lands on the DL or straightens himself out.
David Ortiz, DH, Boston Red Sox: No matter Big Papi's opinion on how small the sample size of poor statistics he has tallied thus far, the fact remains that he has offered, simply put, poor statistics. He's just 3-for-22 (.136 AVG) and has struck out an astronomical 11 times, getting off to the same kind of miserable start he endured in 2009. After two months, Ortiz did return to fantasy usefulness last year, but he's now a year older, with each passing season further increasing the chances that this year's numbers provide proof that he's done. He's also DH-only, particularly problematic to his fantasy owners, who probably have multiple strong alternatives to slot in for him right now.
Pickups of the week
Mixed: Austin Jackson, OF, Detroit Tigers. Just 23 years old, Jackson has yet to show any signs that he's developing power, but why does he need it? He batted .300 at the Triple-A level last season, and averaged 28 stolen bases per year in the minors from 2006-09. Maybe opposing pitchers will catch up with him in several weeks, something that's indeed possible if you look closely at his 10 strikeouts in 32 at-bats, but why wouldn't you want to take a chance on this hotshot rookie? He's a .313 hitter with two steals and six runs in his first seven games, numbers any fantasy owner would welcome to a mixed-league roster.
AL-only: Cliff Pennington, SS, Oakland Athletics. Since joining the Athletics late in July 2009, Pennington has batted .278 with six home runs, 27 RBIs and eight stolen bases in 68 games, and to do the math for you, that projects to 15 homers, 65 RBIs and 20 steals per 162 games played. Those might not be superstar-caliber numbers, but for a shortstop-eligible player in an AL-only league, they're tremendous to obtain for the low price of a waiver claim.
NL-only: Chris Snyder, C, Arizona Diamondbacks. He'd be as useful a pickup in mixed leagues as in NL-only leagues, depending upon the roster structure of your league. Are you in a mixed league of greater than 10 teams that utilizes two starting catchers? Then Snyder belongs in the mixed league category. Do you play standard ESPN formats with one starting catcher? Then Snyder belongs here too. He'll be the Diamondbacks' starting catcher for at least six weeks while Miguel Montero recovers from knee surgery, giving the team the opportunity it seemed to want to showcase the veteran for a potential midseason trade. Snyder is just two years removed from a 16-homer, 64-RBI campaign, one in which he shared time with Montero to a degree (334 at-bats to Montero's 184), so it's clear he has decent pop relative to his position. As a short-term fix, Snyder is ideal.
New position qualifiers
One game: Ronnie Belliard (3B), Pedro Feliz (1B), Jake Fox (C), Cristian Guzman (2B and OF), Jeff Keppinger (SS), Felipe Lopez (3B and SS), Hideki Matsui (OF), Melvin Mora (1B and 2B), Xavier Nady (1B), Nick Stavinoha (C), Fernando Tatis (2B), Ty Wigginton (2B) and Delwyn Young (3B).
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.