Rankings thoughts and predictions
Oh, All-Star break. Why must you be so boring?
Sure, Monday night's festivities are moderately amusing, I guess (I have to admit I wasn't the best company man, though: I went to the movies instead of watching the Home Run Derby, and only caught the tail end). And the game itself is better than the games in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, right? But mostly these three days have been a sports wasteland, and now that we're back to watching games that actually count, we can look back with a smirk. During the break, though, I was a little more like a junkie going through withdrawal than I care to admit.
The days off did give me time to peruse our ESPN Fantasy rankings for the rest of the season, however, and made me consider whether Chris Young (that's the outfielder, not the pitcher) is really the stake horse on which I want to wager my ducats. You see, I had Young ranked way above the other rankers, Matthew Berry, Tristan Cockcroft, Jason Grey, Eric Karabell and A.J. Mass. And this despite the fact that, in each of our past two winter rankings meetings, I've been the biggest Young doubter around. I wrote a dubious piece about him for our Draft Kit this spring. And I don't think I've ever owned him, not once, in a single league. But seeing four of our other five experts not even consider Young among their top 250 players definitely gave me pause, the kind of pause a three-day absence from baseball can accentuate.
And so, having already given explanations for the starting pitchers on whom I differ most from the group in this week's Sixty Feet Six Inches column, I've assembled the same type of analysis for all other positions. Here, then, are five players I like significantly better than our group ranking, and five I like significantly less.
Five players I'm higher on than the group
Chris Young, OF, ARI (my rank: 191; group rank: NR; difference: 69): Well he's hitting .196, so I guess I can understand why messrs Berry, Grey, Karabell and Mass chose to completely stay away from ranking him. And it's not like I'm saying Young is awesome (I will almost certainly never say he's awesome), having ranked him 47th among all fantasy outfielders. But much of Young's legendarily awful first two months of 2009 can be blamed on a groin injury that wasn't bad enough to disable him, but which didn't allow him to run much at all. If you look solely at Young's numbers from June 1 forward, he hit .228 (OK, still terrible, but more than 50 points better than he hit before June 1) with three homers, 13 RBIs and seven steals. Heck, in May, Young struck out 23 times and walked twice. In June and July, he's fanned 26 times and walked 25. Still think nothing's changed with this guy? As he gets healthier, his exceedingly unlucky home run-per-fly ball rate (6.1 percent, compared to 11.2 in '08 and 15.6 in '07) should level out, and we'll see more of that 25-steal potential. Again -- not awesome, probably not someone worth starting right now -- but if I have a choice between Young or Nyjer Morgan or Willy Taveras, heck, I'd rather have Young's multicategory upside on my bench.
Matt Capps, RP, PIT (my rank: 110; group rank: 168; difference: 58): It's the attack of closers on mediocre (or worse) teams. I could just as easily have put Scott Downs (difference: 64), Mike MacDougal (difference: 51) or Kerry Wood (difference: 43) in this spot. Listen, I understand that whole thing about not paying for saves. Heck, I subscribe to that theory wholeheartedly in March. But the reason I subscribe to it is that once the season shakes out, closers very often go the way of the dodo, and wind up getting replaced. But guess what? Half of 2009 is gone. That means half the season has already shaken out. Now we know that B.J. Ryan (shockingly, to me) isn't going to last in Toronto; that Capps is the Rasputin of Pittsburgh relievers; and that MacDougal is the best of an unbelievably bad lot in D.C. Closer variability has officially gone down by half, and unofficially, by a lot more than that. Look over the years: think more closer switches happen in the first half or the second? Contrary to the ranks of my compatriots, none of whom put any of the foregoing closers other than Capps and Wood higher than 200th on their overall lists, this is the time you want to buy closers. You didn't pay for saves, you've done your best to cobble together your fantasy bullpen from waiver-wire flotsam and jetsam but if you're still left with a deficit, you should be finding cheap reliever doofuses either as free agents or as throw-ins in trades. Do I think any of the relievers I just mentioned are great? I do not. Do I think all of them will keep their jobs between now and the end of September? Probably, yeah.
Jorge Posada, C, NYY (my rank: 90; group rank: 140; difference: 50): I can only assume a couple of our guys think Posada's getting hurt in the second half. Otherwise, I cannot explain ranking him 173rd, as Matthew did, or 204th, as A.J. did. In 193 at-bats so far this year, Posada is hitting .285 with 11 homers and 40 RBIs. To my eye, none of his underlying numbers indicate that this production is a fluke; in fact, his ground ball-per-fly ball rate has gone down, giving him more opportunity to bang taters out of that new Yankee Stadium bandbox. Any Yankee should be given the fantasy benefit of the doubt playing in that park, and the catcher? Playing the game's thinnest position? Heck, I understand Posada missed May and then had to sit out a couple of games before the break with a bruised thumb, but he looks worlds better than he did in his limited, power-free action last year. I have him ranked as my No. 4 fantasy catcher right now, behind only usual suspects Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez and Brian McCann. Matthew and A.J. have him No. 10 among backstops. Really, guys? You'd each rather have Geovany Soto, who's hitting .230 and is already on the DL with a bad oblique and out another three weeks, than Jorge? That really surprises me.
Russell Martin, C, LAD (my rank: 121; group rank: 159; difference: 38): Our long national nightmare finally ended on June 20th, when Martin hit his first homer of 2009. Power-wise, Martin has been a disaster this season, as he's on pace for four homers and 52 RBIs. He's always been an extreme ground-ball hitter (he's at 51.1 percent this year, exactly the same mark as '08), but his home run-per-fly ball mark has fallen from 9.4 percent last year to a miserable 3.2 percent this season. Considering Martin's career mark in that stat is 9.5 percent, you've got to believe he'll ramp up the homers a bit in the second half. Heck, with a strong two weeks before the All-Star break, Martin revved his batting average up from .246 to .258, and the magic bullet of why you draft this guy -- steals from a catcher -- is still around: He's got eight, which puts him in range of the 21 he got in '07 and the 18 he stole last year. The warning flag I see when it comes to Martin is strikeouts: He's got 54 in 335 plate appearances, compared to 83 in 650 plate appearances in '08. So yes, I see the signs for concern. But that's why he's not in the top 100. He's still a catcher who runs, he's still a career .281 hitter, and his homer-per-fly ball rate should turn around. Eric has Martin 197th overall and 10th among catchers, while A.J. has him 201st and ninth among backstops. While I definitely like Posada better, I think we'll see Martin's average get up into the .270s before the season ends with another seven or eight steals and seven or eight more homers. If that happens (granted, a big if), Martin will rank among the top five catchers in fantasy for the second half.
David Ortiz, DH, BOS (my rank: 71; group rank: 103; difference: 32): I'm most bullish among our group on Big Papi's second-half prospects, but other than Eric's No. 147 ranking, I'm not flummoxed by where everyone else put Ortiz. I figured I'd simply use this as an opportunity to say: He's back. Everyone in Boston had a theory about why Ortiz struggled in the season's first two months -- from steroids to a wrist injury to age to missing Manny Ramirez -- but the peanut gallery got a heck of a lot quieter after Ortiz drilled 11 homers with 29 RBIs from June 1 forward, and hit .278 in the process. Make no mistake, his bat looked awful to start the year, and pitchers challenged him mercilessly. He couldn't catch up to anything. So while I still think he's guessing a bit more than he used to do to make up for what might be a slightly slower swing, the fact he started to hit again means he can hit, which means he hasn't fallen off a cliff, which means he's well worth starting in fantasy leagues once again. He's not hurt, he's got a great lineup around him, he's sometimes hitting away from the Papi fielding shift, and you can see that opposing managers are once again beginning to fear him as his strikeout rate has dropped back to its historical levels.
Five starters I'm lower on than the group
Jason Bartlett, SS, TB (my rank: 168; group rank: 98; difference: -70): Tristan "called me out" for my low rating of Bartlett earlier in the week, but in case you didn't see his fine article or in case you'd simply like me to reiterate, let me say it again: Jason Bartlett is the most overrated player in fantasy baseball right now. Jason Grey has Bartlett rated No. 55 overall, which floors me. His explanation -- that Bartlett has changed his swing -- could wind up being the truth, and perhaps we're entering the Golden Era of Jason Bartlett. But I say it's far likelier that this guy had a really nice six weeks to begin the year, then he went on the DL and made all his fantasy owners pine for him, making it seem like his surprising offensive production was more than a fluke. In the 24 games since he's returned from the DL, his average has dropped 29 points, his OPS has gone down 88 points, and he's hit exactly one home run. And I like Bartlett. I really do. I went on TV before the season started and claimed he'd be worth owning in a mixed league this year, when our group ranks and average draft position indicated he wasn't. But my endorsement of Bartlett is all about his speed, which is legit. I think he'll steal 35 bases, maybe more. But his batting average on balls in play is .398! Coming into the year, his career BABIP was .318! If you can really get someone to give you top-60 value in a trade, you have to deal Bartlett. Today.
David DeJesus, OF, KC (my rank: NR; group rank: 206; difference: -54): DeJesus is a fast guy who can't steal, a relatively strong guy who doesn't hit for power, a top-of-the-order man who doesn't score runs, and one of the most tempting and subsequently disappointing "value" plays this season in fantasy baseball. Coming off a career year in '08, DeJesus has a career-low .318 on-base percentage that he can't blame on bad luck. A year after leveling out his swing and driving the ball more, he's back to trying to blast it out of the park, and his fly ball rate has returned (35.2 percent) to its pre-'08 degree. He also struggles mightily against lefties and pretty much any off-speed stuff. Our player rater has DeJesus as the 76th-best fantasy outfielder so far this year, and I don't see much in his numbers that indicate a major turnaround is coming, so why would I put him inside my top 60 outfielders, which is what it would've taken to get inside my top 250? I don't think he's ownable in a standard mixed league.
J.D. Drew, OF, BOS (my rank: 248; group rank: 195; difference: -53): Wow, we're punishing Jorge Posada because we're worried he might get injured, and then ranking J.D. Drew? This guy is terrible, and he's added a new fun twist to his repertoire: strikeouts. He's got 74 in 316 plate appearances after whiffing 80 times in 456 plate appearances last year. The fact is that if you remove last June from Drew's record, his two-and-a-half-year stint with the Red Sox looks like this: .255, 30 HR, 139 RBIs, 185 R, 9 SB. While that would be a fantastic line in one season (and might help Drew come close to earning the $14 million he's stealing from the Red Sox every season), it's not, shall we say, getting it done in two-plus. I put him 60th on my outfielder list mostly because of the lineup that hits around him, but I'd probably feel too dirty to start him in a standard mixed league. His 2009 numbers reflect exactly what he is. Mediocre.
Check out all our coverage leading into the second half of the baseball season:
• Fantasy Focus: 2nd-half preview
• Consensus top 250 rankings
• Our experts defend their rankings
• Berry: My rankings discrepancies
• Harris: Where my rankings differed
• Karabell: 10 guys I think are legit
• Mass: The value of value
• Starting pitching rankings analysis
• Relief pitching rankings analysis
• Hitting rankings analysis
Ben Zobrist, 2B/SS/OF, TB (my rank: 158; group rank: 108; difference: -50): Ben bleeping Zobrist is second in the American League in slugging percentage (.598) and OPS (1.069). Ruh? Raggy? And Eric thinks Zobrist is the 43rd-best player in fantasy for the second half this year. Wow. If that's true, well, get out your Nostradamus and your Old Farmer's Almanac. Because that would be one hell of a story. I understand that it's all too easy to dismiss a player who's suddenly jumped way above his previous levels, and I understand that it's not impossible for a guy to simply ratchet up his game to an entirely new plateau. I just don't believe that Zobrist fits the profile of such a player. He's 28. He's essentially a utility player. I know he showed some pop in limited time last year (12 dingers in 227 plate appearances), but you have to realize: He's got a 23 percent home run-per-fly ball rate right now. That's ridiculous. It's the ninth-highest such rate in baseball right now, and look at the dudes who are ahead of him: Jim Thome, Mark Reynolds, Adrian Gonzalez, Albert Pujols, Raul Ibanez, Ryan Howard, Chris Davis and Carlos Pena. Notice anything about those men? Well, they're huge. Some of them are future Hall of Famers. Most importantly, many of them struggle with strikeout and batting average problems. And yet here's unassuming Zobrist in their midst, hitting .297 (with a BABIP of .322, whereas his career BABIP mark before this year was .240). Heck he's not even particularly a fly-ball hitter: He hits fly balls in 38.7 percent of his at-bats, and grounders in 42.4 percent. And all this is to say nothing of the fact injured second baseman Akinori Iwamura, once thought to be lost for the year, thinks he might be able to come back in August. If someone wants to give you top-50 value for Zobrist, you have to do it.
Felipe Lopez, 2B, ARI (my rank: 250; group rank: 200; difference: -50): No real outrage here, though I'm surprised to see A.J. rank Lopez No. 135, mainly because the Diamondbacks don't run. I have little doubt that if Lopez were on a different team, he'd be set loose more frequently on the base paths, and would establish himself as a better fantasy player. Maybe he'll get dealt. But for now, we're looking at a guy with some runs upside who's probably hitting for a higher batting average right now than he will by the time the season ends. His plate discipline has never been anything special (his 1.81 strikeout-to-walk ratio is right in line with his career numbers), he's still an extreme ground-ball hitter, and his BABIP is high (.352) compared to his pre-'09 career average (.315). There's really nothing wrong with him as a mixed-league middle infielder, especially if he's the lowest man on your starting fantasy totem pole. But that 25-steal potential isn't coming back as long as he's got that snake on his cap.
Christopher Harris is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.