- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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The best rookies in real life aren't always the best rookies in fantasy baseball, as we've seen in recent seasons with some of the voting. Brian Bannister got a lot more votes than Daisuke Matsuzaka in the AL in 2007, but there's little question who was better in fantasy, thanks to the strikeouts (77 for Banny, 201 for Dice-K). In 2006, Hanley Ramirez barely beat out Ryan Zimmerman for the award, but it wasn't even close in fantasy. Stolen bases matter to us. Then there's Bobby Crosby winning the AL top rookie honors in 2004. Um, he hit .239. Yikes.
On the Baseball Today podcast I host Monday through Friday, we often discuss leading candidates for MVP, Cy Young, top rookie, manager, stuff like that. In fantasy baseball, well, that stuff doesn't really matter. We have our own criteria for awards. Fantasy owners need to separate what matters in real baseball and what is important to fantasy baseball, which is why you'll see some surprises below in my rookie rankings. What matters to fantasy baseballers are the stats, pure and simple. We've seen some terrific rookies enter the game over the past few seasons, real difference-makers, but right now it doesn't look like the best season for first-year players. Hopefully this will change.
Who are the top rookies as of now? Depends on how you view things, but there are only three players who have even qualified for the batting title! That's not a prerequisite, but according to the ESPN stats page, three rookie hitters have enough at-bats: Elvis Andrus, Colby Rasmus and recently demoted strikeout maven Jordan Schafer. Andrus has nine steals, which helps us, and a batting average that isn't hurting us, but is he really the top offensive rookie so far? I think someone else will be.
I'm going to look ahead and share who I think will end up being the top 10 rookies for fantasy baseball this season. Sure, it might be a bit slanted at the top toward arms, but that's the direction we're headed. It's not as if these are the only players at our disposal, just the first-year ones, so even if Rasmus is the best rookie hitter so far, we shouldn't overrate that. Continue to check out the fine work of Jason Grey as he goes over the top young players with a fine-tooth comb. Here's some different analysis.
1. Matt Wieters, C, Orioles: What? Four hits in 28 at-bats? That's what all the hubbub was about, a measly four hits in eight games? I'm telling you, buy low. Get him now if you can. He's actually been dropped in 1.8 percent of leagues recently. That's crazy. Top-10 catcher, probably top-five when all is said and done. And most importantly, I think he's about it for rookie hitters who can be legitimately owned in standard 10-team leagues. He's got 15 home runs in him, which might make him a top-five catcher anyway, and he's a must-own in keeper formats. Not everyone gets off to a good start, you know. Here's your AL Rookie of the Year, as well as top fantasy rookie. Remember, Ryan Braun played his first game in 2007 on May 25. He ended up with decent numbers, eh?
2. Andrew Bailey, RP, Athletics: Surprise! Here's where you start to think I'm crazy, but remember, we're dealing with stats. Saves are scarce. Bailey is a closer, and one of the more underrated relief pitchers at this point. He's only recently become a hot commodity off the waiver wire, because he's getting saves, but he was well worth it before that. With a 1.98 ERA and 0.94 WHIP, and 44 strikeouts in 36 1/3 innings, Bailey warranted attention as one of the top middle relievers to own. Now he's getting saves. Consider that Jonathan Broxton is the only reliever with more strikeouts than Bailey, and the only closer with more wins. Bailey is by far the top rookie on our Player Rater, the only one in the top 150, coming in at No. 69. Expect more than 20 saves and terrific peripherals. Frankly, even if Wieters does what I expect him to, Bailey could top him for actual season fantasy value by virtue of the saves. Huston Street won the AL Rookie of the Year award in 2005, also for Oakland, with a 1.72 ERA, 1.009 WHIP and 23 saves. Bailey might do exactly that and end up a top-50 player.
3. Rick Porcello, SP, Tigers: I have no concerns at all over what happened this past week, when Porcello had a few rough outings against the Red Sox and Angels. You know what, they weren't all that rough statistically, thanks to the way he's used. Porcello didn't get left in to suffer like Bronson Arroyo often does. I love the way manager Jim Leyland is handling this 20-year-old arm, paying very close attention to pitch counts and coaxing him to induce ground balls rather than going after strikeouts. In a year, Porcello will be fanning 175 hitters. For now, I expect 14 wins with decent peripherals, kind of what Jurrjens did for the Braves in 2008. And yes, I think that can be enough to be the best fantasy starting pitcher among rookies.
4. Tommy Hanson, SP, Braves: It wasn't the cleanest outing Sunday, especially when Ryan Braun was at the plate, but I don't have concerns here, either. For more on Hanson, check out Tristan H. Cockcroft's Out of the Box today. Hanson is a major strikeout pitcher who, despite allowing the home runs, had pinpoint control, walking only one against five strikeouts. He just made a few mistakes and to, I might add, one of fantasy's top hitters. I've got Hanson active in my 19-team office league this week, and it doesn't matter to me whom he's facing. Sure, I sat Braden Looper to do it, so that might be faint praise, but the point is Hanson's first outing didn't worry me. I think he ends up the NL Rookie of the Year, as well as the top fantasy rookie in that league.
5. David Price, SP, Rays: Hey, if I merely ranked players based on what most people thought, how would you glean much from that? I really believe Price is going to continue to hit speed bumps this season because unlike Porcello, he's trying to strike everyone out. He's also walking way too many hitters, 12 in his first 14 2/3 innings. Looking ahead, I think this remains a problem. If Price keeps getting pulled before six innings a start, he's going to find it tough to win, especially in that division and with a leaky bullpen. I think he wins more than 10 games, but I don't like where the WHIP is headed, and I do wonder if the Rays have to consider another minor league stint at some point so he can deal with command issues in an environment with less pressure. And remember, we're talking about only this season. In 2010, I'm certainly buying. In one-year leagues I would see if the reputation gets a lot more in trade than it should.
6. Colby Rasmus, OF, Cardinals: There are a few reasons for concern here. Talent-wise I think Rasmus has the tools, but he's not running. That's problem No. 1. If he ends up with his current pace of 18 home runs, 61 RBIs and a .259 batting average, that doesn't do a whole lot for fantasy owners. I mean, we're all dropping or ignoring Garret Anderson, but how will he end up much different from this, except for the obvious lack of upside? Rasmus has one stolen base. The other issue is playing time. Tony LaRussa is not likely to suddenly sit Chris Duncan, Ryan Ludwick or Rick Ankiel, and I wouldn't be buying any of those guys either. As a Ludwick owner in multiple leagues, I am frustrated because it's obvious he's going to sit a few games each week, unless he really starts hitting. Rasmus could make this easier for himself by getting on a hot streak, but I don't see it. That all said, a 15-60 season probably makes him the next-best rookie hitter in fantasy. Wieters doesn't need to match the production because he's a catcher, though I think he will.
7. Matt LaPorta, OF, Indians: The power is there, but manager Eric Wedge didn't get him regular at-bats the first time he was called up. Let him face right-handed pitching. Let him bat late in games. I mean, you're going to lose 90 games anyway, why play Trevor Crowe when Grady Sizemore returns? I think LaPorta could hit 15 home runs this season in three months, but the Tribe need to let him play. Look for him to come back up later this month.
8. Nolan Reimold, OF, Orioles: The edge he has on LaPorta is that he's already with the big league team, but I don't think he has the same power potential long term, including the final months of this season. Reimold flew under the radar and fantasy owners are still trying to figure out if he's worth it. I could see a 20-home run season and .275 batting average, but I also think the Orioles want Felix Pie to emerge, so everyday playing time could change on a moment's notice.
9. Eric Young Jr., 2B, Rockies: I remember having breakfast with ESPN's Eric Young at a Bristol-area hotel a year ago and he couldn't stop talking about what his speedy son was doing in the minors. The truth is we already knew about the younger Young, since he stole 160 bases over two A-ball seasons heading into 2008. Like his pappy, this Young can really run, but he's a switch hitter and doesn't have much power. He can take a walk, and he's ready defensively. The Rockies have to get Ian Stewart playing time at second base, but if a corner spot opens up for him, it would seem ridiculous for a rebuilding team to waste at-bats on Clint Barmes. Young could steal double-digit bases quickly, and frankly he's more advanced as a hitter than the next guy on the list, who is already up and running. I'll be watching "Baseball Tonight" when this Young gets the call, to see how wide the smile is on his father's face.
10. Elvis Andrus, SS, Rangers: My main concern with him is when he gets tired in August, when pitchers figure him out, is he going to have a 2-for-30 streak and drop that batting average to the .240 range. That's all. There's little question he won't end up like Jordan Schafer and get demoted. Andrus is also a terrific defender, but Omar Vizquel can't handle everyday duty at this point. The Rangers should be careful here, giving Andrus the occasional day off. The kid has nine steals at this point, including three in the recent Yankees series, but I don't think we can presume he ends up with more than 25. Let's give him a .250 batting average and 20 steals, which means he's probably not going to help fantasy owners very much the rest of the way. In a year or two -- hey, he's still only 20, while Young Jr. is 24! -- when Elvis develops some power, he'll be coveted in fantasy.
And now, here's the rest of what one normally finds in Leading Off. We'll keep the theme of rookies going.
Quote of the week
"The last thing we worry about is [Gordon] Beckham, and I don't know why people in Chicago fell in love with this kid. He's a great player, he's going to be in the big leagues, he's going to be a big part of this organization pretty soon. But we don't have Beckham on our mind right now. I don't and I'm the one making the lineup. If we have Beckham here, we're in trouble.''
Later that day, when Beckham was recalled: "Now he's here. I hope he can save us."
Man, maybe we should just rename this section after White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. Beckham is up with the big club, and he's hitless in 10 at-bats. One has to wonder if Guillen expected that to happen, and if he's not too broken up about it. When the kid got the call to the bigs I went on TV and said he'd probably hit for average, but didn't really have much power or speed to entice fantasy owners this season. Ten at-bats are not close to enough to evaluate him properly, but he's probably not ownable in 10-team leagues, and you can see I didn't put him in my rookie top 10. His big problem could be Guillen: If Beckham continues to struggle, he'll be back in the minors quickly. Let's see the Ozzie quotes then. "He couldn't save us, now he's gone, and we're still in trouble." Indeed.
Whatever happened to Cameron Maybin?
My preseason choice for top NL rookie is hitting .277 in 25 games for the New Orleans Zephyrs of the Pacific Coast League, with one home run and three stolen bases. OK, so he's not putting up the big cumulative numbers, but he has cut down on the strikeouts, which is a good thing and probably more important for his overall development. We know he's got some pop and plenty of speed. A friend of mine saw Maybin play last week and reports the newfound plate discipline appears real, but then again, nobody knows if it will translate this season in the majors. My guess is the Marlins are in no hurry to promote Maybin, so the 49.5 percent of you who own the center fielder in ESPN standard leagues can probably look elsewhere for help. Lastings Milledge might get the call sooner, and that's saying something.
It sure would be nice if Phil Hughes were pitching
I think the Yankees made the right move with Hughes, putting him in the bullpen so the established Chien-Ming Wang could start, but you've got to let Hughes pitch once in a while. We still haven't seen him on the mound in June, which is not good for his development, but it's not as if the Yankees have so many better right-handed options. Let's say, for nightmarish example, that something is wrong with Mariano Rivera? Who would be next in line? Joba Chamberlain isn't moving. Hughes throws hard and sometimes that, a little movement and moxie are enough to close. I would have thrown Hughes into an eighth inning this past week to see how he does. Instead, the Yankees are likely to demote him this week to activate Brian Bruney. Why not see if Hughes can do what Chamberlain did and help the bullpen out now?
Bold is beautiful
The Athletics are building quite the rotation from kids, with Josh Outman boasting a 3.02 ERA, Trevor Cahill having allowed precisely two earned runs in each of his past four outings, and Brett Anderson having his best start of the season over the weekend. Billy Beane knows what he's doing, and Vin Mazzaro, who had terrific numbers in the Pacific Coast League, is the latest prodigy. Maybe people laughed when Dallas Braden was announced as the Opening Day starter, and the Athletics probably aren't contenders yet, but you don't see them picking up Adam Eaton, like the Rockies just did. That's embarrassing. Good for Oakland making these bold steps; maybe the A's won't keep Matt Holliday past July, but with this rotation, they won't need a ton of offense to contend. Bailey will be the only Oakland pitcher to finish in the top 200 on the Player Rater, but I'd bet Cahill has a big second half and gets close. He looks like the most fantasy ready of the starters to me, now that he's cutting down on the walks.
Stat of the week: 1.99
Antonio Bastardo made quite the impact in his first week in the majors, beating the Padres and Dodgers, and now he's got a sub-2 ERA over three levels of baseball this season, including Double-A Reading and Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Bastardo threw almost entirely fastballs in dispatching the Padres, and looked composed on Sunday, but I'd remain a bit cautious before adding him in standard leagues. The Phillies' statement on how much they trust the 23-year-old is the reason why rumors continue to fly about rotation help. Also, I need to see this kid pitch at home, where the Phillies do not play as well, and there's less room for error as the fly balls tend to go quite a bit farther.
The final word
Maybe Stephen Strasburg is, as some are reporting, the greatest pitching prospect ever. Hey, publishers need to sell newspapers, magazines, online subs, I get it. He might also be Todd Van Poppel. I hope for the Nationals' sake they do sign him to a reasonable deal, and all works out with health and production, but I think you know where I'm headed with this. I'll be watching the first-year player draft this week, but I sure won't be making any assumptions for fantasy baseball that affect this season.
Once in a while a player comes up quickly and debuts that season, but it's very rare. Ryan Zimmerman did it, and he helped fantasy owners, but take a look at the 2007 draft, for example: How many of those guys are in the majors now? Luke Hochevar is hit or miss, and he went first! Greg Reynolds was second.
I do not see Strasburg pitching in the bigs this season, so picking him up in your one-year leagues is fruitless. Even if he did play, would he really help your fantasy team out pitching for the Nationals? Jordan Zimmermann isn't even fantasy relevant in most leagues, and he's mature and ready. One of my leagues is having a special supplemental draft to deal with the Strasburg and Dustin Ackley hoopla. This all goes back to why I dealt Pedro Alvarez of the Pirates for Jamie Moyer in a very deep one-year league a month ago: Only one of those fellas will help me this season. This past week Moyer finally began doing that. Don't hate on the old. They help you win fantasy leagues as well.
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.
2hTristan H. Cockcroft