I love this time of year.
Really, who doesn't love the opening week of the baseball season? Every big league team has playoff hopes -- OK, maybe not the Orioles -- and every fantasy owner believes he or she, with ESPN's help, has a prayer of sniffing that elusive league title.
It's also prime time for speculation, and hey, I'm always game to hop on that bandwagon. Week 1 is all about what lies ahead, and with the excitement of a new season still fresh, here are some of the things I'm thinking about as the 2008 season dawns:
It wouldn't be a new season without some sort of bold predictions, right? Here's a quick-hitting look at some of the players I've drafted, heard talked about or otherwise popped into my head lately.
Austin Kearns: One game at that new Nationals Park is enough for me to tell it's clearly more hitter-friendly than RFK. No one will be helped by the switch more than Kearns. No one. I see Kearns getting to 30 homers and 90 RBIs.
David Wright: I'm still thrilled I got him for the "cheap" price of $39 in my "PCL" (points-based, combined AL and NL) league; he was cheaper than Miguel Cabrera ($41) and Ryan Howard ($40). In fact, the more I look at it, the more I might regret not going to $46 to get Wright in the "LABR" (League of Alternative Baseball Reality) expert league. He's my NL MVP choice, and I'd call a .320 batting average, 30 homers, 110 RBIs, 25 steals and 100 runs a virtual lock. And I'll raise his 2008 ceiling a bit higher than that (think 40/30).
Clayton Kershaw: We'll see him at some point this year. I'm thinking he'll debut around June 1 and accumulate about the same number of starts and similar stats to what Yovani Gallardo had in 2007.
Shaun Marcum: If there's going to be a 2008 version of James Shields' 2007, Marcum is about the likeliest candidate I can find. Take that as a "he barely made your roster to begin the year, but he won't leave your team all season" kind of tip.
Rafael Furcal: A notoriously poor April hitter, he'll be a buy-low candidate you need to get as we approach May. Then he'll flip the switch, steal 40 bases and be one of the best in-season trade steals around. I love him back in that leadoff spot every game. Last year's disaster must be partly blamed on his skills being wasted in the No. 2 hole.
Joba Chamberlain: Want my projected number of starts for him? Zero. That's right, zero. Every time he takes the mound in the eighth inning, he continues to demonstrate why he's far too valuable to shift out of that role. That's not to say that Chamberlain is worthless for fantasy as a setup man. In fact, I see him vulturing eight wins and five saves, striking out 100-plus and being among the best ratio contributors out of the bullpen.
Closers: The first to lose his job for performance reasons, not health, will be the Diamondbacks' Brandon Lyon; the second will be the Rangers' C.J. Wilson; the third will be the Cubs' Kerry Wood; the fourth will be the Marlins' Kevin Gregg.
Ten bench hitters to watch
Just because a player didn't crack the starting nine on Opening Day doesn't mean he's irrelevant for fantasy. Here's a name for you: Carlos Pena. He was on Tampa Bay's roster but not in the lineup on Opening Day 2007 yet finished the year as one of the most productive players.
Not that I see a Pena-like season for any of the 10 names below, but this is a fine time to start jotting down some names, guys to watch, players to pounce on should they see a boost in at-bats ... There's no one like Jason Kubel, Geoff Jenkins, Joey Votto or Dmitri Young there; besides being known entities, there's a logical explanation why each didn't play in his respective opener. (OK, well, I can't explain Votto. You'll have to ask manager Dusty Baker about that one. But I think you get the idea.)
Be ready, and if you're in a deep league, you might scoop and stash 'em today:
Brian Barton, OF, Cardinals: A right-handed hitter, this Rule 5 pick squeaked onto a roster featuring three starting outfielders who bat left-handed. Inexperienced or not, Barton should squeeze in some platoon at-bats, and he has some speed, too.Wilson Betemit, IF, Yankees: In his past 600 plate appearances, Betemit has 27 homers, 88 RBIs and a .778 OPS, plus an .826 OPS against right-handers. Those numbers really aren't much worse than Jason Giambi's (31/96/.848/.879).
Jason Botts, DH, Rangers: Botts has slugged .500 or better in four consecutive seasons in the minors, and he had a .981 OPS for Triple-A Oklahoma in 2007. Once Milton Bradley is ready to take the field, Botts should get fairly regular DH at-bats.
Rajai Davis, OF, Giants: The Giants will pay Dave Roberts $6.5 million in 2008 despite the fact that Davis could be at least as useful for a far cheaper price. He had a .373 minor league on-base percentage and averaged one steal per 2.49 games.
Chris Iannetta, C, Rockies: It's easy to forget that he batted .303 with a .915 OPS for his minor league career. Iannetta remains the Rockies' future. He had a strong spring and I'd actually prefer him, part-timer or not, on my fantasy roster over starter Yorvit Torrealba.
Scott Moore, 1B/3B, Orioles: It's not like the Orioles are a playoff contender in 2008, so why not get a sense of whether he can handle the third-base chores? From 2006-07 between the majors and minors, he batted .272 with an .833 OPS against right-handers.
Nyjer Morgan, OF, Pirates: Nothing against my boy Nate McLouth, but Morgan is a respectable caddy to him, having averaged one steal per 2.27 games for his minor league career and logging seven steals in 28 games for the Pirates last year.
Juan Rivera, OF, Angels: Rivera has batted .307 with 28 homers, 106 RBIs and an .869 OPS in his past 600 plate appearances. I don't know a team around that can't use that kind of production, so hope for an early-season trade.
Eugenio Velez, SS, Giants: He's one of the quickest guys on any big-league roster. Consider that only five players in the pros swiped more than his 122 bags from 2006-07. One was Jose Reyes. The other four have never played above Class A.
Reggie Willits, OF, Angels: He's the American League version of Rajai Davis, only he's a switch hitter. Incredible stat: Willits' worst on-base percentage in any year at any professional level was .372. That means oodles of chances to steal bases.
Players I drafted most often
People often ask me which player I own in the most leagues. Well, after more than a dozen drafts, I counted up my players. Here's who popped up most often:
Garrett Atkins: He has back-to-back seasons with at least a .300 batting average, 25 homers and 110 RBIs. I see no reason he won't do it again.
A.J. Burnett: In his past 35 starts, he has 17 wins, a 3.60 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 236 Ks. Plus, 2007 represented his first season with more Ks than innings. If only he could stay healthy enough to make 33-35 starts in a year, he'd be ace material. But I'd settle for 28, too.
Jeremy Hermida: I keep quoting these numbers, but from July 1 on last year, he batted .338 with 12 homers. A .300 batting average and 25 homers are realistic.
Conor Jackson: Thank you, Tony Clark, for fleeing Arizona! It means an almost-guaranteed 500 at-bats for Jackson, and if he's up to the .300-hitting, 20-to-25-homer level I'm expecting, he could approach 600, only helping his cumulative stats.
Derrek Lee: Mark it down, the 16 homers he hit the second half of 2007 are much closer to the real Derrek Lee than his six-homer first half. I expect 30, easy.
Grady Sizemore: Stat geeks -- OK, the ones who aren't me -- be damned, Sizemore is coming off back-to-back-to-back 20/20 seasons and he's 25 years old. If his ceiling isn't higher than this, you're kidding yourself. I see a 30/30 campaign, 125 runs and 80 RBIs, even if his batting average is an "underwhelming" .285.
Chris Young (Diamondbacks): Again, batting average will be a problem -- every point over .250 is gravy -- but I think his 30/30 potential is absolutely legit.
Ryan Zimmerman: I don't think he reaches John Kruk's forecast of 50 homers, but set the over/under at half that and I'm all in on the over. He is a franchise player, and I'm all about the franchise players; Zimmerman is a keeper I see only getting better from here.
Players I didn't draft anywhere
It's the counterpart to the last question, and you know, I look at these seven names and realize I haven't been losing any sleep over missing out.
Josh Beckett: Not that I don't respect his talent, I just don't trust his health. Beckett has exactly two 30-start campaigns in six years, and he logged 230 2/3 frames in 2007 (counting the postseason). That's a lot, and I think it limits him to 25 starts in 2008.
Chone Figgins: He batted .330 in 2007 after hitting .267 in 2006. Split the difference and he's a .290 hitter, and I don't consider .290-hitting, 50-steal third basemen top-40 players.
Cole Hamels: Again, this one is all about health. Has everyone forgotten he missed a month late last year with a strained elbow? Fast fact: Hamels has averaged fewer than 18 starts per season as a pro. That's not enough for me to make him a top-10 starter.
Hideki Matsui: I've watched enough baseball to recognize a career decline when I see one. His knee is a tad questionable, and his 2007 numbers were boosted by a monster July when he hit 13 homers with 28 RBIs. Take that month out, and he'd have been a .270-12-75 hitter in 115 games. Snore.
Brian McCann: I don't overspend on catchers and wasn't willing to grab McCann as early as he went. It's just not what I do. That said, I'd say McCann's true value is closer to his average draft position than most.
Jorge Posada: Again, I don't overspend on catchers. Especially not 36-year-olds with thousands of innings on their knees coming off out-of-nowhere career years.
Carlos Zambrano: It's easy to rag on him now after he left his Opening Day start with forearm cramps, but go back to January, when I said I was about as anti-Zambrano as a fantasy writer could get. If he makes 30-plus solid starts, I'll be stunned.
Didn't get, but wish I did: Alex Rodriguez I didn't have a single No. 1 draft position this year!), Miguel Cabrera (I still like Wright better), Jimmy Rollins (value simply didn't pan out), Adam Dunn (can't explain how that happened), Hunter Pence (too pricey).
Guys I love who apparently no one else does
I kept landing these guys as late-round picks, and when I did, I kept getting these quizzical looks from across the room:
Scott Hairston: I drafted him on six teams -- six! -- and don't regret it a bit. The change of scenery did him wonders last year, and I see a bona fide 25-homer campaign in his immediate future, even if his batting average is in the .260s.
Hiroki Kuroda: Want a scary fact? I picked him on more teams than any other player: eight times! Not that I spent much in any league to get him, so it's as much an example of others lacking interest in him as it is my expecting big things. As to those "big things," I can say this: the Dodgers, with regard to imports, aren't stupid. They scout well, so I could see 13 wins, 160 Ks and an ERA around 4.00.
Felipe Lopez: Maybe it's blind faith, but I don't believe in Ronnie Belliard, and I really don't believe in Cristian Guzman. I think Lopez could steal 25 bases even if he bats only 300 times this year. Frankly, I'm hoping for a trade.
Nate McLouth: OK, so other people like him; I just appear to like him more. What's not to like? He's always been speedy, but he also bulked up with 12 second-half homers in 2007. You won't find a cheaper 20-homer, 30-steal candidate for 2008. That's right, Corey Patterson, I'm not calling you that; I'm simply not a believer.
Joe Saunders: He has 15 wins and 16 quality starts in 31 starts the past two years combined, and it's not like the Angels are any less competitive today. Not that I expect better than a 4.00 ERA or 1.35 WHIP, but if he gets a full 33 starts in 2008, and I expect he will, Saunders should be the most shocking 15-game winner in baseball.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.