- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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The Braves have a myriad of reasons for their 90-loss campaign in 2008 -- starting pitching troubles, injuries, the Mark Teixeira trade -- but too few realize just how much their punchless outfield affected them. Atlanta managed a grand total of just 27 home runs from its outfielders in 2008. After all, 15 major league outfielders (and 39 players in all) did that on their own.
Sunday night's performance in Philadelphia was just one game, of course, but the productive second inning that saw Jeff Francoeur and Jordan Schafer each homer -- hey, only 25 more homers to go for this outfield to reach last season's total! -- could be a harbinger of big things to come. Or it could merely be two players getting ahold of hittable pitches from gopher ball-prone pitcher Brett Myers at a homer-friendly ballpark.
In a standard mixed-league draft I took part in last week, I noticed nary a Braves outfielder was selected, and it didn't even seem odd to me. Francoeur is coming off a horrid .239, 11-homer campaign, and even though he seemed renewed at the plate this spring with a changed look and swing, it is believed he might sacrifice power for batting average. He entered Sunday's game owned in fewer than half of ESPN standard leagues but obviously saw a big jump after his home run, a grooved, first-pitch fastball that Myers said he regretted as soon as he threw it. He's not the only one. It landed in the left-field stands, and quickly.
Meanwhile, the rookie Schafer did win the center-field job, but it's not like he beat out Hall of Famers in Josh Anderson (now a Tiger) and Gregor Blanco (now in Triple-A Gwinnett) to earn the right. Schafer remains unproven at this level, with fantasy owners not sure if he's even a double-double option in homers and steals, even though he was in the minors. And former Angel Garret Anderson, hitting the highest in the order among the three starters but owned in the lowest percentage of leagues (around 10 percent), is what he is, an ordinary yet consistent RBI guy who provides little else, and thus tends to get overlooked by fantasy owners. Anderson likely will platoon in left field with Matt Diaz.
Of the three regular starters, I still think Schafer is the one to watch this week and beyond. His second-inning homer was impressive, a center-field shot that even in Philly's cozy Citizens Bank Park was what we'd refer to as a big-boy wallop. Schafer also rattled a single up the middle in the fourth inning, and received the first intentional walk of his career in the sixth. What respect, and after only a few at-bats!
While I project Francoeur and Anderson for largely similar stats -- home runs in the teens, decent RBIs, unexciting batting averages and no speed -- I believe Schafer could be much more, and he's certainly a player to keep an eye on in Week 1. In fact, he might not even be available in most leagues after that. It wouldn't surprise me if his term of hitting in the No. 8 lineup spot -- an odd spot for a rookie since it's tough to see good pitches there -- ends any day now. There could be pressure on middle infielders Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar to produce or lose their top-of-the-lineup spots, as Schafer has more speed, and if he shows he's not overwhelmed, his value could really rise if he hits ahead of Chipper Jones and Brian McCann.
Note that the Braves don't exactly face many aces this month. They miss Cole Hamels this week, the Nationals are up six times in the next four series and the Pirates and Reds also are pending. Only four of Atlanta's scheduled opposing pitchers throw left-handed, which means Schafer, who has struggled in the minors against southpaws, shouldn't be overwhelmed. Sure, it's just one night in Philly, and Myers didn't offer much resistance in the first two innings, but with Schafer, a star really could be born.
Stat of the week
4: It's only one game, but Brett Myers tied for the major league lead in 2008 with four games of allowing three or more home runs, and the trend is off to a familiar, disturbing start this season. Myers, whose draft position seemed to gain steam this spring as owners saw how CC Sabathia-like he was post-break 2008, also has the lure of this being a contract season for him. Dropping him following one mixed outing -- he did settle down his final four innings -- is premature, but he's going to have to keep baseballs in the ballpark to have success, and I have doubts he can control that rate consistently.
Whatever happened to
a productive Ken Griffey Jr.? Undrafted in three-quarters of standard ESPN leagues, Griffey is going to play regularly this week, at least, since the Mariners have an outfield opening where Ichiro Suzuki should be. Among active players, Griffey has hit the most Opening Day home runs (7), but good luck adding to it, Junior, against overpowering Twins lefty Francisco Liriano on Monday. In all, Seattle is scheduled to face four southpaws this week. Don't expect Griffey, who batted .202 against southpaws a season ago and .216 over the past three seasons, to start well. He's owned in 26 percent of leagues, but even that seems a bit generous.
It sure would be nice if
Nick Johnson could stay healthy. I know, I know, it's like asking for lower taxes, world peace or the Los Angeles Clippers to win an NBA title. But the Nationals are hoping to have Johnson play regularly and bat fifth this week. Johnson played only 38 games combined the past two seasons, but in 2006, he hit .290 with 23 homers, 78 RBIs and 100 runs scored. Adam Dunn lands in the outfield for now, and popular fantasy sleeper Elijah Dukes lands on the bench, as Austin Kearns outhit him this spring. Josh Willingham can keep Dukes company. The Nationals' offense could undergo a lot of changes this week, resulting in changes in fantasy ownership, so keep an eye on it. Johnson, by the way, is owned in fewer than 2 percent of ESPN leagues. Ouch, indeed.
Bold is beautiful
Reds rotation: Bronson Arroyo struggled mightily with carpal tunnel syndrome this spring, but he hasn't been placed on the disabled list yet. Instead, Dusty Baker is pushing Arroyo's first start back a couple days, and Micah Owings moves up to Thursday. I don't mean to be skeptical, but there's no way I'd leave Arroyo active in fantasy this week, or next for that matter. Expect a Reds roster move eventually, and a refined Homer Bailey to seize another opportunity after pitching well this spring (2.61 ERA, 4 walks, 20 strikeouts) and still getting demoted. I still see Bailey, a mere 22 years old, winning more than 10 games for the Reds this season. Not sure I can say that about the hittable Owings, who gets attention for his bat, but not really his arm.
Quote of the week
From Royals manager Trey Hillman: Hey, not that Luke Hochevar was going to win the Cy Young Award this season, but the fact that Sidney Ponson was brought in from nowhere, had a miserable spring and still won the No. 4 rotation spot is a bit ridiculous. Hochevar is a former No. 1 pick, showed signs of emerging in 2008 and had a capable spring. Ponson showed signs of, well, nothing good. So we get this quote from Hillman after a recent Ponson outing, one in which the hefty Aruban allowed seven runs: "I'm not disappointed. I didn't like the results, but I'm not disappointed in what he brings to the table. We still saw stuff, pitchability." If you drafted Hochevar in an AL-only deep-mixed format, don't assume the Ponson experiment lasts long. Hochevar will be back in the bigs soon, showing his "pitchability," whatever that means.
What we're doing
Tristan Cockcroft's Forecaster: Nobody previews a week the way Mr. Cockcroft does, so look for his book of team advantages, weather, sleepers, two-start pitchers and much more every weekend. This week he notes, among other items, that the Cardinals could get off to a quick start to 2009. Also, watch for a Monday through Friday Fantasy Focus online video show, with analysts Matthew Berry, Christopher Harris, Keith Lipscomb and yours truly. Last week's shows can be seen on the fantasy baseball page in the video section.
The Final Word: Don't panic
The best time to check out the free-agent lists is during the first week of the fantasy season, when foolish owners make the mistake of assuming one bad outing is a precursor for a bad season, or a hitter starting the season 0-for-10 is a trend. It's one week. Sometimes it stretches to a few weeks. Either way, remain patient, at least into May. I still recall a certain Red Sox second baseman hitting .182 with no homers and no steals in April 2007. And Dustin Pedroia won the American League Rookie of the Year award that season. Last season, a certain very rich Yankees pitcher allowed nine earned runs in consecutive April starts and had a 13.50 ERA entering his fifth start. CC Sabathia ended up OK, right? Don't laugh; these guys were released or dumped in trades in many leagues. On the flip side, Derek Lowe might have looked like Roy Halladay on Sunday, but that's not a fair deal. Be patient. This is Week 1 of 26. A lot will change. Two guys I'll stick with this week no matter how bad they are: underrated Gil Meche (at White Sox, versus Yankees) and Raul Ibanez, who seemed to be pressing Sunday night after the Pat Burrell Philly lovefest continued. Oh, now they love Burrell. Ibanez will be just fine.
Name this column!
What's that line from "Major League II"? It went something like, "If you can hit it, you can rename it." Well, now that you've read this column, can you come up with a catchy name for it? I will be following this format every Monday afternoon, so share your thoughts on what to call it -- maybe something baseballey? -- and any other comments about the column. Send it to my feedback at this link or just post it in Conversation (below), and then check back next week!
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. Check out his daily Baseball Today podcast at ESPN Podcenter. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.
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