Congratulations to the New York Yankees, 2009 World Series champions. What a team. Such power, such a talented ace, such bullpen depth, such chemistry, such a home-field advantage … such deep pockets …
Despite that last comment, most people know I'm no Yankees-hater, but let's face it, what I said in January wound up coming true. And it's a good thing it did. If not for my Yankees-buy-the-World Series prediction, I'd have been shut out in terms of championships -- real-life favorite team or fantasy teams -- this season.
You read that right: I was 0-for-the-season.
Oh, there were several second-place finishes, others firmly in contention and only one team that finished even remotely close to last place, but no rings. It happens; luck will be on your side some seasons and not others, and while I could instead rave about how many of my 2008 teams sipped champagne, I won't. The bottom line is my 2009 squads all lost, and I'm angling for a rebound year in 2010.
What better way to do that than get a head start on 2010 draft preparations? I'm a big proponent of immediately turning the calendar page to next year the instant the previous one is done, whether it's the middle of fantasy football season or not. Fantasy football playoffs? I can handle that in my sleep. There's the all-important hot-stove season to analyze -- a season that actually began even before the Yankees sipped their champagne! (Major League Baseball: Please no more World Series games in November.)
That's where this column comes in. Each week we'll analyze the latest baseball news from a fantasy perspective, in a quick-hitting format. Larger stories -- like the Roy Halladay and Matt Holliday sweepstakes? They'll get their own spins.
Let's get the proverbial ball rolling …
Twins and Brewers swap 2009 disappointments: It tops my list because it's a deal of two interesting talents coming off terrible years, J.J. Hardy and Carlos Gomez, acquired by the Minnesota Twins and Milwaukee Brewers, respectively. Neither one appeared likely to enter 2010 as a starter for his former team, but both of them seem ready to step in for a pair of free agents set to exit their new cities, Orlando Cabrera and Mike Cameron.
Hardy brings improved defense to the table -- important albeit a tad less critical with the Twins set to move off the Metrodome turf and onto Target Field's grass in 2010 -- as he ranked seventh in the majors the past three seasons combined (2007-09) in infield runs saved and sixth in plus/minus at his position, according to metrics in the "Bill James Handbook." In terms of range factor, he's usually in the 4.40 range (4.22 career), which is above-average.
But we in fantasy pick guys like Hardy for their offensive contributions, right? Sure, he's coming off a miserable year in which he batted .229 with a .302 on-base percentage and .357 slugging percentage, and his line-drive rate has dipped in every year of his career. Nevertheless, he's 27 years old, his home run/fly ball percentage dipped from a somewhat-healthy 10.8 in 2007-08 combined to a career-worst 6.9 and, perhaps most importantly, he gets a fresh start in a new organization that didn't demote him to the minors for what some felt might have been only to delay his free agency by another year. To say he might be motivated to show the Brewers their mistake isn't an unfair statement. Hardy's true value might be right in between his 2007-08 best years and his terrible 2009, but for a player at a position that thins out quickly, he might be a value selection in 2010 drafts.
Gomez, meanwhile, should be a defensive stud for the Brewers, having ranked third in outfield runs saved and second in plus/minus at center field the past three years, helping fill the void created by the departure of an aging Cameron. Think that doesn't matter? Keep in mind the Brewers allowed the ninth-most fly balls in the majors in 2009, third-most in the National League. Gomez's presence will help the pitching staff, though his bat might leave a bit to be desired. He's still only 23 years old (he turns 24 in December), so there's time for him to improve with the bat, but a speedster who averages one strikeout per 4.22 at-bats and one walk per 20.04 plate appearances for his career is not a well-rounded player. Gomez has speed, which will appeal to NL-only owners, but I'm not sold on him improving much offensively, or at least not beyond his 2008 numbers.
Pirates acquire No. 2 hitter: Akinori Iwamura might not be anyone's poster child for "fantasy stud," perhaps a result of his .409 career slugging percentage, but it's good to see that a team like the Pittsburgh Pirates appreciates his value … they don't tend to do it too often. He's a contact-hitting, capable every-day second baseman who can draw a walk; his .355 on-base percentage in 2009 was 20 points higher than the American League average (although he played only 69 games because of a knee injury).
Iwamura will bat second in Pittsburgh, which was a problem lineup spot this year (.306 OBP), but the problem for fantasy owners is that on-base-but-little-pop players like this must rely on the bats behind them to keep them productive in the runs scored category. The Pirates, unfortunately, ranked 21st, 28th and 29th in baseball in slugging percentage from their Nos. 3, 4 and 5 spots in the lineup, and that's in spite of Garrett Jones having made all 82 of his starts hitting out of one of those three spots. Iwamura's value might actually decrease in Pittsburgh (unless you're a believer in Jones).
One benefit of the Iwamura trade: Ben Zobrist is now the Tampa Bay Rays' probable every-day second baseman. One of 2009's biggest breakouts, Zobrist might not be quite the .300/30-homer/100-RBI/20-steal candidate he seemed to be for much of the year. Still, even if you project his second-half stats, when he cooled to a more reasonable pace, to a full season, he'd have been a .298-22-87-13 hitter. That's darned good.
White Sox, Royals exchange infielders: When I first caught wind of the Chicago White Sox having traded Josh Fields and Chris Getz to the Kansas City Royals for Mark Teahen, I shrugged. None of the three seems destined for a career that would significantly tilt the deal to either side, and in the end it really just seems like a shuffling of underwhelming infield parts. But one thing fantasy owners will be pleased to hear is that if you feared the addition of Teahen, a natural third baseman, cutting into Gordon Beckham's playing time in Chicago, or Fields, also a natural third baseman, standing in the way of Alex Gordon, worry not.
Foxsports.com reports that despite Fields' acquisition, the Royals remain committed to Gordon at third base, while the White Sox's official Web site reports that Beckham had previously agreed to a shift to second base before the deal was completed. That's great news for their keeper-league owners, especially Beckham's -- the hot-shot rookie will be a two-position qualifier by the middle of April.
As for the traded players, neither Fields nor Getz will be guaranteed a starting job. Fields might have to settle for a corner infield/left field/designated hitter role, a part-time one at that, and picking him in AL-only leagues will be speculating on his immense power potential. A statistic to keep you from getting carried away: He has struck out in 30.3 percent of his career plate appearances. Getz has the better-hitting Alberto Callaspo to contend with at second base, and an offense/defense arrangement might be the end result. That would hurt Callaspo more than it would help Getz. Teahen, meanwhile, should play every day, being that his .712 career OPS versus left-handers doesn't paint the picture of a platoon partner. Of course, his .765 OPS versus right-handers doesn't paint the picture of a quality regular, nor does the fact that more than 50 percent of his career batted balls in play have been ground balls. You might think the move to U.S. Cellular Field, a homer haven, would boost Teahen's stock, but it probably won't to noticeable levels.
Red Sox take a chance on a failed prospect: If you've been an avid reader of mine over the years, you might remember my fondness for 2002 Florida Marlins first-rounder Jeremy Hermida. Boy, was I wrong on that guy in 2008, and he continued to underperform while battling nagging injuries through 2009 (by which point I no longer trusted him). With Hermida set to earn a noticeable pay increase via arbitration, the Marlins unloaded him on the Boston Red Sox in exchange for two minor league left-handers: Hunter Jones (a reliever) and Jose Alvarez (a swingman).
Fantasy owners won't care about Jones or Alvarez, but they might care about Hermida. He's a low-risk venture for the Red Sox, a team that likes to take them on good, young talents who can take a walk. Well, Hermida sure can take a walk, posting a career-best average of one walk per 7.66 plate appearances, not to mention cutting his strikeout rate by about four percent in 2009. The problem is that J.D. Drew's monster contract -- he has two more years on his deal -- blocks Hermida in right field, and while Hermida could easily take over for free agent Jason Bay in left field, it's hard to imagine the Red Sox being comfortable with that kind of downgrade. Should they decide to do it, though, Hermida is young enough (he'll turn 26 in January), will be playing in a deeper lineup that would help his counting numbers and will get a fresh start that might yet help him turn his career around.
Red Sox retain both catchers: Sticking with the Red Sox theme, on the same day the Red Sox exercised Victor Martinez's $7.1 million option, they declined Jason Varitek's $5 million team option … only to learn three days later that Varitek exercised his $3 million player option to remain with the team. Don't mistake Varitek's decision for a belief that he'll remain a starter in Boston; he probably wouldn't have earned that elsewhere and hey, he's the captain, so if he was going to be relegated to backup duty, why not do it for a team that likes you? Martinez will be the Red Sox's starter with Varitek experiencing a noticeable drop in at-bats, and if there's an upshot to all this, it might be upon Tim Wakefield, freshly re-signed to a two-year deal. With Martinez and Varitek on board, the Red Sox might not be able to afford the luxury of a third catcher to handle Wakefield starts, diminishing the chances of a Wakefield streak like his 2009 first half.
Diamondbacks retain Brandon Webb: One of the more notable questions entering the winter was: Would the Arizona Diamondbacks exercise their $8.5 million option for 2010? The answer, which came quickly: Yes, though the right-hander certainly pressed them to act after suggesting he'd test the open market otherwise. Webb, who made only one start in 2009 and shoulder surgery in August, threw for 15 minutes at 60 feet this past Wednesday for the first time since the operation. "No problems and no pain," he said. Spring training will provide a better gauge of his health, but it's not unreasonable to think he could make a healthy recovery at even 80 percent of his previous performance level.
Postseason surgeries: Ted Lilly underwent arthroscopic surgery Nov. 4 to clean up debris and labrum fraying in his left shoulder, reports ESPNChicago.com. He's not expected to throw again for four months, meaning a season-opening stint on the disabled list is likely for the left-hander. … On the same day, Brandon Inge underwent successful surgery to repair patellar tendinitis in both of his knees, reports the Detroit Tigers' official Web site. Inge had been playing through knee pain through much of the latter part of the season, which could help explain his .186/.260/.281 second-half stat line. … Speaking of possible excuses for poor performance, Brad Lidge had surgery Wednesday to repair the flexor pronator tendon as well as to remove a loose body in his right elbow, reports the Philadelphia Phillies' official Web site. "Brad could be one to two weeks behind in spring training," said general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. Perhaps this explains Lidge's 11 blown saves … actually, no, there's no real excuse for it. With this news, could Lidge possibly be a scarier fantasy pick heading into 2010?
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.