That magical date is now five days away. Can't you smell the hot dogs, peanuts and Cracker Jack already?
With spring training right around the corner -- pitchers and catchers begin reporting for work Wednesday -- it's only natural that the big news of the past week was mostly in the health department, and almost entirely involved pitchers. One recovering pitcher inked a contract, while we received word on the rehabilitation of two other notable fantasy names.
First, the recent signee: The Seattle Mariners signed friend-of-the-disabled-list Erik Bedard to a one-year, $1.5 million contract on Feb. 6, including incentives that might make it worth up to $8.5 million, as well as an $8 million option for 2011. That gives the team another ace-caliber (when healthy) starter to add to its stable, which already included Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee; in the best-case scenario, that could mean one tough one-two-three punch if this team can make the playoffs.
Assuming Bedard will remain healthy enough to be available come October, however, might be a small leap, considering his track record. He has seven career DL stints on his résumé in the past seven seasons, had surgery to repair a torn labrum on Aug. 14, previously had his labrum operated upon in 2008 and as a result is a virtual lock to reside on the DL come Opening Day. At the time of his surgery Bedard was scheduled to need 10 (that'd be June) to 12 (that'd be August) months' recovery time, but according to the left-hander, his surgeon, Dr. Lewis Yocum, provided an eight- to nine-month timetable -- meaning April or May. Fantasy owners should prepare as if this is a pitcher who might appear for only the final four months of the 2010 season, and even then he's no guarantee to stay healthy.
In terms of performance, however, Bedard presents a lot to like for fantasy owners, especially those in AL-only leagues or with deep benches/DL spots to stash him. In 30 starts for the Mariners the past two seasons, Bedard had a 3.24 ERA, 1.26 WHIP and 8.89 strikeouts per nine innings. The Mariners also sport one of the game's strongest defenses and have improved their team's competitive level during the winter, meaning wins might come more easily to him. Don't forget about Bedard in your draft, but understand he's also one of the riskiest pitchers around.
Brandon Webb throws off a mound: Significant news, this is, as Webb is only two years removed from a 22-win season, was a top-two finisher in the Cy Young voting each year from 2006 to 2008 yet made a single appearance in 2009 before eventually succumbing to shoulder surgery on Aug. 4. But on Tuesday, Webb threw off a mound for the first time since the operation, and reported no issues after throwing 20-25 pitches.
"[It] went good," Webb told the Arizona Diamondbacks' official Web site. "[The] ball came out well, but I was just thinking about arm slot on every throw. That's to be expected, not having thrown on the mound in so long."
Webb will throw off a mound again in the next few days before reporting to Diamondbacks camp, ahead of the team's reporting date of Feb. 19. He'll be a critical name to track throughout spring training, but at the onset of camp, all indications are that he'll get every chance to bounce back close to his former self -- which was a clear top-10 fantasy starting pitcher.
(For more on Brandon Webb's potential in 2010, check out the KaraBlog.)
Brandon Lyon admits to shoulder surgery: In a bit of a bombshell, the Houston Astros admitted Wednesday that Lyon, who recently signed a three-year, $15-million contract to take over as the team's closer, had surgery two weeks ago to drain a small cyst in his pitching shoulder. The team reported that he has been throwing without discomfort since the operation, and is expected to be ready for the start of spring training next week.
Don't change your draft-day pricing of Lyon just yet, but it's worth checking back in on him once camps open, as he already was a closer who presented several risks. Most notably, he had the second-lowest BABIP (.229) of any pitcher in baseball with at least 70 innings in 2009, 76 points beneath his career mark in the category. He also walked a career-high 3.55 batters per nine innings, meaning some regression from his 2.86 ERA and 1.11 WHIP need be expected. Lyon, if healthy, will presumably be drafted as a low-second-tier closer in mixed leagues, but the more risk factors he takes on, the weaker a pick he'll be even at that level.
What else has been in the news the past week?
New York Mets lower Citi Field fences: Those very words might have fantasy owners salivating over the prospect that the Mets' new home ballpark, one of the most cavernous in baseball during its inaugural season of 2009, might suddenly become a more hitter-friendly venue. Let's not leap to conclusions, OK? According to the team's plan, the height of Citi Field's center-field wall will be lowered from 16 feet to 8 feet, and even the most casual baseball fan recognizes that the toughest place in any ballpark in which to hit a home run, naturally, is to center field. Lowering the fences in that specific area merely means it'll require less of a moon shot to clear the wall at the ballpark's deepest point. The dimensions of Citi Field, meanwhile, will remain exactly as they were in 2009: spacious.
Another point: According to HitTrackerOnline.com data, only 10 home runs were hit to that area of Citi Field's center field in 2009, out of 130 total. To say that the difference will be minimal is fair, especially in light of the fact that, as Rob Neyer points out, it'll be easier for fielders to steal home runs away with shorter fences anyway.
(For more on the fantasy impact of the Citi Field changes, check out the KaraBlog.)
Mets also sign Mike Jacobs and Hisanori Takahashi: It was a busy week for the men in blue and orange, apparently, though mostly in minor moves. Both of these guys signed minor league deals with invitations to spring training, though they'll each get a long look for a roster spot. Takahashi probably stands a better chance at making the Opening Day roster, as a left-handed relief hopeful who registered sub-3 ERAs in two of the past three years in Japan (3.80 career). Consistency has not been his friend, however: He has ERAs north of 4 in four of the past six years, and scouts point out he is hardly overpowering and instead relies on command and changing the speed of his pitches. That's the kind of pitcher who sounds like a fringe NL-only pick at best, albeit one whose progress should be tracked in March. Remember, the Mets weren't the healthiest of teams last season, so a handful of starts might be possible for Takahashi.
Jacobs, meanwhile, will battle Daniel Murphy for at-bats at first base, though the Mets have maintained that Murphy is their projected Opening Day starter there. Considering Jacobs' tendency to strike out (once every 4.36 at-bats in his career), his complete inability to hit left-handers (.221/.269/.374 career BA/OBP/SLG) and his poor defensive reputation, he might be a glorified pinch hitter on a team like the Mets. Accounting for the fact that power is his most useful fantasy asset and that's usually deflated by Citi Field, he'd need to do a lot during spring training to even warrant the attention of NL-only owners.
New York Yankees sign Marcus Thames: Like the aforementioned two, Thames inked a minor league deal with a spring invite, but he might be more likely than either Met to reside on the Yankees' Opening Day roster. He's a smart fit in an outfield that leans excessively left-handed -- the other projected four on the roster, Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher, Randy Winn and Brett Gardner, combined to bat .208/.298/.320 versus left-handers last season. Thames, by comparison, managed .257/.347/.457 numbers against southpaws in 2009, and has .256/.329/.516 career rates against them, meaning that while he'll have to earn his way onto the team, if he does, there might yet be some matchups value in his bat.
San Diego Padres sign Yorvit Torrealba: Bad news for Dusty Ryan and, for that matter, Nick Hundley, as Torrealba's addition makes it likely the Padres will go with a near-split of the catching chores between the young Hundley and the experienced Torrealba. Fantasy owners won't be pleased; fewer at-bats means fewer counting numbers for Hundley, and counting numbers are really his primary contribution for our purposes. Don't get the idea Torrealba is an advised NL-only pick, either. He was a .246/.306/.370 hitter in his road games during his Colorado Rockies career, and he's a .156/.198/.234 hitter in 22 career contests at Petco Park. A significant tumble from his .291 batting average is probable.
Los Angeles Dodgers sign Brian Giles: Formerly an attractive fantasy outfielder, Giles saw his numbers tank last season, and he had a hard time staying healthy. We'll forgive him, being that he's now 39 years old, but that doesn't mean we'd recommend him as a viable fantasy choice in 2010. Giles will be in the mix for a reserve outfield job with the Dodgers during spring training, but the best-case scenario has him probably serving as their primary pinch hitter, a la Jim Thome late last year or Mark Sweeney in 2007-08. If you found any value in either of those guys as Dodgers, feel free to draft Giles. I know I won't.
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, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.