- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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Just last night, on "Sunday Night Baseball," I watched the best fantasy player on the Chicago Cubs hit the first pitch at Milwaukee's Miller Park for a home run , his NL-leading fourth of the first week. Yes, Alfonso Soriano is on a roll, and it looks like another big fantasy season is on its way. I wouldn't bet against him finishing as a top-10 fantasy option.
Earlier on Sunday, I saw the best fantasy player on the Chicago White Sox single, walk, score a run and raise his batting average to .150. Hey, entering the weekend, Alexei Ramirez had been hitless, and his fantasy owners, the same ones who considered him big-time sleeper material and made him No. 65 in average ESPN live drafts, were starting to panic and cut him. Big mistake. I wouldn't bet against him being a top-30 player.
Fantasy baseball managers are the impatient type, more so, I believe, than in any other sport. Soriano has earned the distinction of being a special player statistically with four 30/30 campaigns, and even though I think his 30-steal seasons are over, the guy still has the ability to flick his wrists and hit home runs seemingly at will. He even walked in a run Sunday night! There's nothing Soriano can't do. Even if he had had a poor first week, his owners wouldn't have flinched.
Ramirez hasn't earned that status yet, which becomes obvious as I see his name cursed in my inbox and bandied about in my leagues as trade bait, and he's no longer 100 percent owned in ESPN leagues. That's incredible! It's one week! Ramirez does look a bit out of sorts at the plate and different than he looked in the second half of 2008, when he looked like a budding 30/30 star to me. I don't think he enjoys being buried in the White Sox's No. 8 spot in the lineup, especially when unproven players such as Dewayne Wise and Chris Getz get the chance to hit leadoff. There's no way to measure the impact his lineup placement has had on his bat -- or his psyche -- but these things tend to work out fine. Talent wins out. I mean, they've played all of six games! You loved the guy on draft day, and yet you're going to let this small sample size lead you to cut him for the likes of Marco Scutaro at middle infield?
Ramirez drew a walk in his first appearance against Nick Blackburn on Sunday, which in a way was nearly as good as anything else he could have done. Sure, a home run would have been nice, but taking a walk is impressive enough since Ramirez managed a grand total of 18 walks his entire rookie season. He now has two of them in a week, putting him on pace to double his 2008 total. Baby steps, people. Plate discipline would seem to be about all that's standing between Ramirez becoming a fantasy monster, and I'm not convinced he needs to change a thing. After all, Soriano doesn't exactly draw a lot of walks. Vladimir Guerrero swings at whatever he wants as well, and does just fine. Ramirez is a similar specimen, a terrific athlete still learning how to adapt. OK, so he didn't have the best week at the plate, and he's not yet hitting his (light) weight.
This week is going to go a lot better for him, and you're going to wish you had him, especially when that shortstop eligibility kicks in.
Soriano is the best fantasy baseball player in Chicago right now, and I don't see that being threatened this season. But Ramirez is going to be a strong No. 2, even better than Carlos Quentin. Buy low, people, before it's too late and he gets that Soriano-like swing back.
Stat of the week: 9
You gotta love Octavio Dotel of the White Sox. He has retired 10 batters this season, and he fanned all but one of them. Who was the lucky guy to make contact? That would be former teammate Joe Crede, who popped out in the seventh inning Saturday. Dotel isn't perfect; he allowed a pair of walks and three stolen bases before Matt Thornton relieved him Saturday, but he's really good if you need strikeouts.
So what if he doesn't pile on the saves? I hear fantasy owners complain they aren't competitive in strikeouts and don't know why. It's not always because their starting staff consists of Chien-Ming Wang and Nick Blackburn types. Relief pitchers can make a huge difference in this regard. A year ago, Dotel was bested in strikeouts by only two non-starters (Carlos Marmol, Joel Hanrahan), and his peripheral numbers were just fine. He's not going to continue this pace of fanning nine of 10 hitters he gets out, but wouldn't it be nice if he did, and ended up with 208 strikeouts in 69 innings?
Whatever happened to
Kyle Lohse the Twin? When Lohse was in Minnesota, he lost more than he won and wasn't exactly someone fantasy owners targeted. His ERA there was 4.88. His ERA was 4.58 with the Cincinnati Reds, and 4.72 in his brief tenure in Philadelphia. So why is Lohse so good with the St. Louis Cardinals, and is it time to buy in? I'd say so. This wouldn't be the first time pitching coach Dave Duncan has turned an average pitcher into something semi-special. Sunday's three-hit shutout, in which Lohse retired 24 consecutive Astros, is just more proof that fantasy owners should embrace this guy and forget about his work in the Twin Cities, Cincinnati and Philadelphia. Despite winning 15 games for the Cardinals in 2008, Lohse was the No. 55 starting pitcher selected in average ESPN drafts; he was even taken after Ben Sheets, who might not pitch at all. It's good to see Lohse's ownership rising, though it's still unacceptably low at 17.3. The $41 million contract he received last season looks awfully Gil Meche-like: a bargain. Like Meche, who needed two strong seasons in Kansas City to become draftable, it seems fantasy owners can't forget the past when choosing for the now.
It sure would be nice if
Emilio Bonifacio could keep this up. I don't say this just because I have Bonifacio on most of my teams. Well, maybe that is some motivation, but it would still be a great story if Bonifacio reacts to the adjustments pitchers will no doubt make and continues posting fine numbers. So many just-called-up batters hit well for a week and then struggle as pitchers get a book on them and exploit their weaknesses. Chris Shelton's 10 homers and .326 average in April of 2006 stands as the best example -- he hit just .256 with six homers the entire rest of the season -- but it happens more than one thinks. This also happened with Jay Bruce last season: He had a torrid start and then cooled off quickly.
Looking for comparisons, I'm thinking Bonifacio profiles as the next Chone Figgins if the youngster learns how to hit consistently -- or lay off -- the high pitches that overwhelmed him Sunday. Sure, it was Johan Santana, and he overpowered about all the Marlins' hitters. But the blueprint is there now. Let's see how Bonifacio, currently hitting .500, handles it moving forward.
Bold is beautiful
Buy low on Cleveland Indians: I'll spare you more talk about how it's only one week, but the Indians have presented fantasy owners with a beautiful opportunity to get their players at a decreased price, or even free. A bad start will do that. Mark DeRosa, Kelly Shoppach, and Fausto Carmona are among the most popular drops from this team, but I still believe in all of them. Hmm, 20 homers from a multi-position-eligible infielder, and 20 more from a really good backup catcher? Sounds good to me. And Carmona looked OK for much of his first start in Texas; he just made a few mistakes. At least he wasn't walking people. Cliff Lee remains 100 percent owned, but for how much longer? Stick with him, too. I picked the Indians to win the downgraded AL Central, and I can't justify changing my mind on that after six games. Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez look fine to me, to the point that I'd still aim to acquire them before their numbers really take off.
Quotes of the week
Sticking with our Chicago theme today, I ran across a few gems after Sunday's game. First up is White Sox backup catcher Corky Miller, speaking of the "rejuvenated" Bartolo Colon: "He knows how to pitch. He's a pitcher. He's been around a long time, he knows he doesn't have to throw 96, 97 [mph] to get guys out." Sorry, Corky, there isn't much chance I'd go near Colon in fantasy baseball. Being around a long time and being, um, a pitcher, guarantees little. My favorite quote -- and this probably won't be the last time this season -- would be from White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, discussing Miller. "He's been great all spring. He's a veteran player, he swings the bat pretty good. You're going to see him get a lot of action because I'm going to give A.J. [Pierzynski] more days off than in the past." OK, so Miller will give Pierzynski more breathers. I get that. But fantasy owners should be a bit wary. Miller might be a really nice guy, fun at parties and handle a pitching staff well, but check out his proclivity with the bat over five seasons. Including his final four at-bats of 2003 and all of 2004-06 with three major league teams, Miller had one hit in 59 at-bats! After a strong 2007 as Brian McCann's backup (.259), Miller went 5-for-60 in 2008! I mean, those are worse than pitchers' hitting numbers. Look, I wouldn't be able to hit major league pitching, either, and Miller might "swing the bat pretty good," but Guillen is in for a surprise if Pierzynski sits a lot.
What we're doing
You can now find two-a-day chats from ESPN Fantasy, including Christopher Harris and Matthew Berry scheduled on Mondays. My weekly chat is the Wednesday 3 p.m. ET slot. Here's a link from last week's spirited session. Also, while Tristan Cockcroft's Fantasy Forecaster, posted on Fridays, prepares you for the week ahead, don't forget to check out Harris' Big Rotowski column that day as well. In Week 1, Harris took a different tack on the "be patient" theme, telling everyone to, well, panic. Well, kinda.
Name this column!
A week ago we asked for ideas on what to name this column, and we thank you for the feedback. We're still combing through the submissions. Personally, I think "Karaballs and strikes" and "Karabells and whistles" just might miss the cut. Or "Karacut." Keep sending your thoughts, though. Send it to my feedback at this link or just post it in Conversation (below).
The final word
Todd Helton seemed done a season ago because of back problems, but then he hit a few home runs this spring and mended his relationship with fantasy owners again. Sorry, folks, this isn't likely to end well. Helton deserves kudos for a tremendous career with the Rockies, one which featured strong numbers not only in the thin Denver air, but on the road as well. However, it's our job to be proactive here. After seeing Helton struggle this weekend against the Phillies, I'm convinced we're seeing the last of the once-productive first baseman. Fantasy owners have placed Helton on the most dropped list, which is wise, and it shouldn't be long before Ian Stewart makes it to the most added side. OK, so 19 plate appearances isn't much of a sample size, but Helton not only struggled to make consistent and strong contact the first week; he also didn't take pitches like he usually does, walking only once. Helton doesn't need to openly grimace to show us he's hurting. Also, manager Clint Hurdle will need to sit Helton in day games after night games, further reducing potential playing time. Stewart is going to get plenty of playing time this season as Helton struggles with health and performance, so keep him on your radar because that's a 20-homer bat lurking. It's always a sad story when a franchise icon is not the same player he once was, and we should be respectful of how the Rockies need to handle a delicate situation, but fantasy owners need to see what's really going on here.
And finally ... RIP, Harry Kalas and Nick Adenhart.
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.
Eric Karabell uses the opening week to project Alfonso Soriano and Alexei Ramirez and offers other useful tidbits.