- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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No, I am not related to Ben Zobrist, nor do I own his rookie card. Yes, I do think Ryan Ludwick can return to 2008 form, and if you ask me where I stand on Lastings Milledge, you will get a different answer than pretty much everyone who contributed rankings to the ESPN Fantasy midseason package last week.
The big question is, of course, are any of us wrong? Or right, for that matter?
Well, we shall see. Hey, I love rankings just like the next guy or gal, because they're just fun to look at and stir debate. They're also controversial. Karabell likes Shin-Soo Choo more than Matt Holliday? To the guillotine he shall go! Debating and disagreeing is part of the reason we do the rankings, and our goal seems to have been achieved. We thank you for the feedback.
I actually had trade talks affected by the rankings this weekend. I wanted/needed to move Mike Cameron in a league so I could make room for a player I wanted/needed more, a deal was worked out, and then -- voilà! -- the potential trade partner saw where I ranked the Brewers outfielder and started to get cold feet. Or maybe he was just "playing the game" and using the leverage against me. That happens a lot in my leagues. If I'm offering up a player, other owners tend to think something's wrong with him. I eventually moved Cameron, but let's just say had I ranked him in my top 100, instead of No. 158 -- which was still far higher than the consensus -- I would have gotten more in trade. Oh well.
The bottom line on the rankings is to enjoy them for what they are, which is good, clean fun. They're nothing to get too worked up over, nor should they elicit anger if you happen not to agree. Maybe you can use them to your advantage in trade talks. Maybe you can even do so against me! Whatever the case, like others on our staff, I have a whole host of players whose rankings I agreed or disagreed with. I want to keep things positive, though, and discuss hitters who I think are more "legit" than everyone else. Ultimately, isn't that what this project is about? Streaks come and go, and obviously affect numbers, but if I think someone is legit and believe his performance is going to be strong, I should elaborate.
Ten hitters I ranked higher than everyone else
Prince Fielder, 1B, Brewers: I was a bit surprised myself that I ranked Fielder so high (seventh overall), but I didn't like the other options in the top 10, and I don't see why he couldn't be more of the 2007 version of himself than last season's version. Frankly, I think Fielder is going to finish with the best numbers of his young career. Would I rather have Fielder or Carl Crawford the rest of the season? It absolutely depends on need. This isn't April. By now you know if you need stolen bases or power, so you can't make decisions or give advice in a vacuum. But in a vacuum, I take Fielder and expect the monster numbers to continue.
Justin Upton, OF, Diamondbacks: This is Miguel Cabrera with speed. Really, if I were starting a keeper-league team now, I think Upton would warrant third-round consideration, if not considerably better. Don't look at the strikeouts. He's on pace for 29 home runs and 23 steals, and he's 21 years old. When Vladimir Guerrero was young, he didn't take walks either, but man, he was exciting. That's Upton. I realize his brother runs a lot more, but Justin has the power and can run, and he's only getting better.
Aaron Hill, 2B, Blue Jays: He hit 20 home runs in the first half. The fact that it's already a career high does not prevent him from continuing his pace to 35 home runs. I remember the season Rich Aurilia went off and finished with 37 home runs. Fantasy owners couldn't run away fast enough when he got off to a hot start, but he continued for that glorious season. Sure, Hill isn't protected in the batting order by a Barry Bonds, but I think it's just too easy to say Hill can't keep hitting for average and power because he has never done it before. I won't rank him as a top-50 player next season, because to me it's asking a lot more for him to repeat his brilliant season than to continue his current one. He's locked in. After a winter, who knows? For these final 10 weeks, it's amazing he still can be had so cheap.
Ben Zobrist, 2B/SS/OF, Rays: Here's the poster boy for how my rankings differed from everyone else's. Zobrist's consensus rank was out of the top 100, but I had him at No. 43. I don't believe his season is a fluke, and I don't think anyone on staff should adjust our thinking so the rankings look more "normal," whatever that should mean. It's good to be different, and frankly, that's how you win a fantasy league: by taking chances when others refuse to. Maybe you tell me he has been merely a utility player before this season. To that I say he just needed opportunity. You say the power isn't real, and I point to a 30-homer pace, the decent walk rate and the fact that he bats fifth regularly for a good offensive team. I'm not going to call out others on staff for not believing; maybe they're right about him. Nobody really knows for sure, and they're just following the percentages. Then again, if Zobrist goes 30-90-20 and hits .300, as he's on pace to do, will anyone really care -- or remember -- where I ranked him in July?
Pablo Sandoval, 1B/3B, Giants: My high ranking of him is funny because I am probably the most conservative drafter/trader on the fantasy staff. I do take chances, of course, but I tend to gravitate toward the more veteran, established players. But this season I see myself becoming convinced quicker that young talent is becoming legit. I really enjoyed watching Sandoval late last season and was buying in all my leagues this year. Nothing that has happened so far has swayed me negatively. I doubt he wins a batting title, but the fact that he's even in the discussion is amazing.
Derrek Lee, 1B, Cubs: I know all the reasons why my ranking of Lee (at No. 59 overall, while nobody else ranked him better than 91st) looks egregious, but I also cannot assume his 17 home runs before the All-Star break mean he will suddenly stop just because the most home runs he has hit since his monster 2005 season is 22. Can Lee hit 35 home runs? I obviously believe he can, whether it's because of newfound health or a different approach at the plate. And since he's a career .282 hitter, I assume his batting average will also remain an asset. Sometimes when a player ceases providing a skill he used to, namely stolen bases, it can adversely affect his value. Let's enjoy Lee -- and Alex Rodriguez, for that matter -- for what he is doing right.
Ryan Ludwick, OF, Cardinals: Opinions change, sometimes very quickly. A month ago, I would have sold Ludwick for cheap. Now I won't. One must change one's mind about player performance when evidence dictates it, and the way Ludwick has been swinging since coming off the DL has convinced me he's back to being that 37-homer fella he was in 2008. As with Zobrist, I'm relying on Ludwick in multiple leagues, but that isn't swaying my opinion. His performance is -- plus the fact that the guy hitting ahead of him is the best player on the planet. I expect a huge second half.
Michael Bourn, OF, Astros: It's all relative to need, which is one of the flaws of the system when comparing players. If you want stolen bases, this guy will provide them as well as pretty much anyone out there right now, and he has a totally different approach than when he was brutal in 2008. No, he won't hit for power. Maybe his batting average will drop as well. But he's going to continue to steal bases. So is Bourn better than, say, Chris Carpenter? Well, if you need stolen bases and don't need pitching or the risk of a brittle pitcher, then yes, he is.
Gordon Beckham, SS/3B, White Sox: Everyone else left him out of the rankings, and they might be right in doing so, but from watching this rookie play lately, I see a more confident hitter than when he first came up and was an automatic out. Beckham looks to me like someone who will only improve his plate discipline and selectivity, and he has double-digit-homer power and speed. If he were outfield only, I'd look elsewhere, but at shortstop, he definitely appeals to me. In most drafts I'm not so concerned with my last player being a safe option; I want to take a few chances. If he stinks, I can always find someone on free agency to replace him.
Lastings Milledge, OF, Pirates: Again, it's the upside factor for me, and you can't tell me Milledge lacks upside. Maybe he's a bit overrated because of his 2008 performance, but he has been dumped by his second organization and absolutely has something to prove. Sure, I am well aware Milledge has struggled this season, but I believe motivation can be a critical factor in performance. Nobody else ranked Milledge in our midseason rankings. Everyone ranked J.D. Drew, and I'm even wondering why I ranked Drew a bit better, to be honest. Expect Milledge up within two weeks, and expect him to flash that power/speed package sooner than later.
Whatever happened to Ben Broussard?
Fantasy owners enjoying the Shin-Soo Choo experience should thank the Mariners for trading Choo to the Indians at the 2006 deadline for Broussard, who since that time has hit 18 major league home runs for Seattle and Texas but batted .243. Broussard hit three singles in 23 at-bats for Triple-A Charlotte (White Sox) in April, and the team had seen enough. Choo, meanwhile, is one of the most underrated players in baseball. He's not going to get MVP votes, not for the worst team in the AL, but he's on pace for 23 homers, 95 RBIs and 23 steals, with a strong batting average and many runs scored to boot. We're going to see trades similar to this in the next few weeks, young players with promise moved for established hitters with little upside. Maybe we've already seen it in the Oscar Salazar trade to San Diego. Salazar has hit for power in the minors and can play every infield position and probably corner outfield as well. He's no kid, but the Padres have nothing to lose in moving Cla Meredith and seeing what Salazar can do. I'll be watching from a fantasy perspective as well. As for Choo, maybe he can make a run at 30-30 next season.
It sure would be nice if Garrett Jones kept hitting
I feel bad for Pirates fans, because it doesn't seem right for any franchise followers to suffer like this for so long. Pittsburgh is a terrific town. It has already won two championships this calendar year, though the Pirates won't be making it a third. Maybe Freddy Sanchez and others get traded, maybe not. Fans whine when they don't like the trades, but I wonder how they feel about opening up regular playing time for Jones now. One of the most added players in ESPN leagues, Jones has seven home runs in 14 games and has stolen three bases as well. Four of those home runs came off lefties, and yes, Jones hits left-handed. I don't expect a 20-homer second half, but smart fantasy owners will find room for a player on a hot streak, then move on to someone else when it stops. Having a career minor leaguer such as Jones, who languished in the Twins system for years, continue to succeed is good for everyone and keeps fantasy owners on their toes. That's why I am rooting for him.
Stat of the week: 15
Jair Jurrjens might be the most underrated pitcher around. The only pitcher with more starts this season of allowing two or fewer earned runs than Jurrjens' 15 is Dan Haren, and we all know how good he is. That's right, Jurrjens has done this more times than Zack Greinke, Johan Santana, Roy Halladay and every other pitcher not named Haren. From a pure fantasy aspect, this does not make Jurrjens a top-20 pitcher. He's not winning a lot, thanks to low run support, and he's not a major strikeout pitcher. His ERA is terrific, and while it comes with a good WHIP, it's not a great one. Still, it's a bit crazy that Jurrjens can be less than 100 percent owned with a 2.77 ERA and this kind of consistency. I can tell you that in a head-to-head league he's a lot more valuable, because in that setup, you want good outings each week, even if you don't always get the wins and K's.
One of my most notable fantasy baseball league wins was accomplished mainly through a deadline-day trade in which I stole Terry Pendleton from another owner for a few pitchers I didn't need, one of them a closer named Jay Howell, who, I was sure, couldn't keep up his performance. Pendleton was seemingly an ordinary third baseman at the time, but he was hitting for average. He would end up hitting for power, too, and winning the NL MVP award, and I took a fantasy title. I was in second place when I made the deal, and acquired Pendleton from the first-place squad. That team finished fourth.
At the time, I recall leaguemates' calling me crazy for trading with the leader. This reminds me a great deal of the current baseball talk that the Blue Jays "can't" trade Roy Halladay to the Red Sox or Yankees, division rivals both. My question is, why not?
The Blue Jays know they can't win the AL East the way it's currently constructed. If they get what they need from the Yankees, for example, while possibly weakening that franchise long-term, I think an intra-division trade makes perfect sense. Do the Jays want to help the Angels more just because they face them less? Obviously the Jays aren't going to vault to the top this season by picking up top prospects, nor will the Yankees, in theory, lose more with Halladay. But hopefully you see my point. In fantasy it's the same way. Don't be afraid to trade with a team above you in the standings if you can help your own team more.
Back in 1991, I needed batting average and a third baseman. Pendleton was perfect. The first-place team needed saves, but he didn't get them in this deal. The fact that he thought he was getting saves gave him a false sense of security and made him think he didn't need to make more deals. He ended up losing five spots in batting average and in ERA, since the starter I gave him -- I wish I could remember the name -- got lit up, and Howell didn't help him move up in saves. I weakened that team, strengthened mine, and didn't care what my leaguemates thought. The Jays, like fantasy owners, should take the best deal on the table, regardless of team.
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.