Oldies but goodies
Veterans such as Ibanez, Rivera, Lowe, Cameron still worth trusting
Let's face it: Many of us are obsessed with youth.
We like objectified eye candy, whether it's the hot new Hollywood starlet or the shirtless hunk being worked on by the cast of "Grey's Anatomy."
There's a similar obsession with youth in fantasy baseball circles, although we're not necessarily gawking at right arms that are attached with freakishly strong tendons.
Instead, we get excited by high-ceiling baseball prodigies who leap into the majors and rack up unexpectedly golden numbers. It's the statistics we like. Vin Mazzaro goes two big league starts without allowing a run, and we rush to grab him. Gordon Beckham skims along the surface of the White Sox developmental system and finds himself, at least in our collective consciousness, in Longoria country.
It's understandable. We feel that baseball veterans are known quantities whose values are well established. We believe we can't "steal" them, because everyone knows their names. So we focus our ardor on kids the lazy owners haven't heard of yet. We hope to catch lightning in a bottle. To an extent, I'm on board with that.
But around this time in the fantasy baseball season, I think we also lose sight of the extent to which reliability and steadiness should be prized quantities. Right about now, the unforeseen hot starts of Casey Blake, Kosuke Fukudome, Orlando Hudson, Wandy Rodriguez, Zach Duke and Randy Wolf -- players who were such causes of scorn when we at ESPN Fantasy dared not rank them high enough based on those starts -- are cooling off.
Right about now, rookie phenoms like Matt Wieters, Matt LaPorta, Fernando Martinez, Gio Gonzalez, Derek Holland and Brett Anderson -- players whose ascension to fantasy relevance we've all been awaiting for years -- aren't performing well enough to justify their perceived fantasy values. Right about now, I think, we forget that some pretty good players will submit some pretty good stats in the relative twilights of their careers.
So let's look at the best players in fantasy baseball who are older than 35, and think about trading for them. Because while the probability of a breakdown is higher for these guys, they represent the underappreciated geriatric set of our game.
Manny Ramirez, OF, Dodgers: Age 37. I know, I know, it's distasteful. No matter your opinions about Man-Ram, you have to admit he's a hitting machine, and he'll return from his PED suspension on or around July 3, just before the All-Star break. And if there's one guy in Major League Baseball who's wired to tune out all the taunting by opposing fans and hounding from the media to which he'll be subjected for the rest of 2009, it's Ramirez. He's a blithe moron who can rake.
Raul Ibanez, OF, Phillies: Age 37. All right, Ibanez probably doesn't qualify as undervalued. Widely considered a somewhat questionable signing for the left-handed-hitting-heavy Phillies this winter, all Ibanez has done is hit .322 with 21 homers and 58 RBIs, with an OPS of 1.051, third in the majors. You could make an argument he's the NL MVP right now. If you own him, it would take stones to deal him, especially because he's got a solid history of triple-digit RBIs. But it is probably all downhill from here.
Chipper Jones, 3B, Braves: Age 37. Larry's raking again. He's played in 50 of a possible 59 games, so while he has been banged up, he's also been more reliable than usual. In lists of fantasy third basemen, the latter-day Jones regularly gets slighted, but I'd probably put him at No. 5 right now, behind only Alex Rodriguez, David Wright, Evan Longoria and Kevin Youkilis. The Chipper owner in your league may feel he's gotten the healthiest games he's going to get out of Jones, and he may be right. But I think Chipper's worth taking a chance on.
Derek Lowe, SP, Braves: Age 36. I was high on Lowe to begin the year and wound up owning him in a ton of leagues. Obviously, I have no regrets. He's headed for his fifth consecutive season with an ERA under 4.00 and a WHIP under 1.30. It's all an indication that Lowe was simply made to be a National League pitcher. Moving from Chavez Ravine to Turner Field hasn't been a problem, and the ground balls just keep coming. He's the 6-percent-yield CD of fantasy pitchers.
Trevor Hoffman, RP, Brewers: Age 41. You could've colored me relatively skeptical about Hoffman's journey east, away from the Petco canyons that many believed were covering up some shaky closing skills the past couple seasons. And you could've colored me wrong, considering Hoffman still hasn't given up a run as a Brewer. With 15 strikeouts and one walk in 17 innings, and with 15 saves in 15 chances since he came off the DL on April 27, Hoffman's season is looking a lot like that of Brad Lidge circa 2008.
Jorge Posada, C, Yankees: Age 37. I'm a little skeptical that Posada will make it through the season without another DL stint, and he's a well-below-average defensive catcher and game caller at this point, but he can still hit. He's drilled four homers in 11 games since coming back from injury May 29 and seems sufficiently recovered from the shoulder problems that saw his OPS drop nearly 200 points last season. He's still available in nearly 5 percent of ESPN.com leagues, and that shouldn't be so.
Jim Thome, DH, White Sox: Age 38. I think a bit of caution is warranted with Thome. To my eyes, his bat looks a little slower, so while he's still an on-base machine (.402 so far in '08), he poses potential batting-average problems and he's hitting fewer fly balls: 36.7 percent, his lowest number since FanGraphs has been tracking. Still, even after a horrid April in which he hit .218 with just a .772 OPS, Thome is on pace for 32 homers and 104 RBIs. Perhaps because he's eligible only in fantasy's "utility" spot, Thome is available in nearly 20 percent of leagues, and he won't start for the White Sox's next nine games because of interleague play. But despite my reservations, I'm adding him if I need power. Except for an injury-limited 2005 with the Phillies, he has hit at least 30 dingers a season since 1995.
Ryan Franklin, RP, Cardinals: Age 36. Franklin has logged over 1,000 innings in his 11-year big league career, having worked three full seasons as a starter in Seattle before coming to the National League. But he sure isn't slowing down as the Cardinals' closer. This is the second straight campaign that Franklin has taken over for a failed St. Louis fireman; he took the job from injured Jason Isringhausen last year, and neither Jason Motte nor Chris Perez handled the job well here in '09. But whereas in '08 Franklin's numbers were shaky -- 3.55 ERA, 1.47 WHIP -- so far this season he's been immense: 1.14 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, a .174 batting average against and 14 saves in 15 chances. Both Motte and Perez had been throwing very well in set-up roles until recently, but each guy has had a rough first couple of weeks of June, solidifying Franklin's hold on the closer's role all the more. I've no earthly idea why he's available in 5 percent of ESPN leagues.
Randy Johnson, SP, Giants: Age 45. Now that he's eclipsed the 300-win mark, will Randy ride into the sunset? His WHIP right now sits at 1.41, his worst mark since 1992, and that's largely because his control is worse: His 3.43 walks-per-nine is his highest since '98. His velocity is pretty dramatically reduced (his fastball usually clocks in around 90), but his slider is still nasty. Johnson continues to be ownable in all mixed leagues, especially in standard ESPN.com leagues; injury-prone guys don't scare me nearly as much in shallow leagues, simply because there are other decent options on the waiver wire at all times. The Big Unit is still available in about 20 percent of leagues.
John Smoltz, SP, Red Sox: Age 42. There isn't a great history of any pitcher coming back from major labrum surgery, let alone a guy of this advanced age. But to invoke the cliché, Smoltz really has made a living proving people wrong. He had his final rehab start rained out Thursday night at Triple-A Pawtucket, so he'll pitch Friday night instead. We shouldn't set the bar too high. Scouts haven't loved what they've seen of Smoltz's new pitching motion; it apparently doesn't look as free-and-easy as it used to, and he's living between 87 and 90 mph on his fastball. But he's still got a wide array of pitches that AL hitters haven't seen much of. I think that when push comes to shove, either Brad Penny gets dealt to make room for Smoltz, or someone currently in the rotation (hello, Daisuke Matsuzaka) comes down with a mysterious DL-able ailment. Smoltz is available in 80 percent of ESPN leagues and might be worth a speculative add.
Jason Varitek, C, Red Sox: Age 37. Let's round out our list with a pretty nice comeback story. Varitek was left for dead by everyone this winter, including the Red Sox, who left him hanging after he declined arbitration, then signed him on the cheap. After an '08 season in which he hit a horrid, virtually empty .220, his career as a viable fantasy entity, even at the game's shallowest position, seemed over. But any list of the top, say, 12 fantasy catchers of 2009 has to include the Boston captain. His OPS is back up to .825, his highest since '05, and he's hit 10 homers. Now, I have no confidence that means he'll hit 27 taters this year (which is his pace). But 20 does seem reasonable. And that he's at .236 means he's 12th among big league catchers with at least 160 ABs. Hey, it ain't great, but at least Varitek is suddenly a heck of a lot better than an empty catcher slot. That's more than many would've given him credit for in March.
Christopher Harris is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.
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