I can always tell when the trading deadline has passed in many fantasy baseball leagues because I start to see more e-mails with questions and comments about next year's drafts. It's not surprising. After all, the Pirates and Athletics have been looking ahead to 2010 for months now.
But it's OK. If your fantasy team is going nowhere and you're not adversely affecting the championship race, go ahead and think about next season. It's not going to hurt anyone.
There's obviously plenty of time for changes to be made to this list, but I have already begun thinking of what my top 10 would look like in 2010, as well as where other hot-button players such as Joe Mauer and Mark Reynolds might end up.
1. Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals: Not a big surprise here, but it is interesting to note that he was not the consensus first overall pick this season, and he is not the current leader on our Player Rater (Carl Crawford is). Sort of reminds me of Peyton Manning in fantasy football; the numbers are always there, even if he seldom ends up the top player, or in Manning's case, top quarterback. Pujols is showing no signs of aging, and consistency counts. He has hit at least .300-30-100 every season of his nine-year career, and while he never has won a Triple Crown, he's an annual contender for it, and that's quite a feat.
2. Hanley Ramirez, SS, Marlins: With the above said, I certainly wouldn't mock anyone who takes Ramirez over Pujols. Many drafters did it this season, and Han-Ram hasn't disappointed them. He's headed for the NL batting title and on pace for 25 homers and 31 steals. Sounds good to me from any player, and this guy is a shortstop.
3. Ryan Braun, OF, Brewers: While Pujols gets all the attention for how special the start of his career has been, Braun hasn't exactly been Andy Marte. Braun will reach 100 home runs soon, likely before his first three seasons are over, at close to the same rate Pujols did and with a cumulative .300 batting average and double-digit stolen bases each year. Only three other outfielders in baseball history have started their careers with 25 home runs in each of their first three seasons, and you've heard of them (Joe DiMaggio, Frank Robinson, Darryl Strawberry). A few seasons back I called Braun a future Manny Ramirez statistically, and so far so good.
4. Chase Utley, 2B, Phillies: How silly does all that talk of Utley missing significant playing time after offseason hip surgery seem now? You can get better cumulative stats from others in later picks, but this is a second baseman on his way to another 30-homer season and his fifth consecutive year with 100-plus RBIs. He also steals bases and hits .300. Can't ask for much more than that.
5. Alex Rodriguez, 3B, Yankees: He's obviously an interesting player to rank, and who knows, he might slip in future drafts. But I'm going to trust him. Rodriguez has 21 home runs in 85 games. The power is still there. The low batting average was to be expected, but we shouldn't expect it to be low next season. And for those who said he couldn't run anymore, he's a mere two stolen bases away from double digits. I could see him swiping 20 bags next season.
6. David Wright, 3B, Mets: On the other side of town, Wright has had a very good fantasy season, but not in terms of power. Nobody can argue with the batting average and stolen bases. Then again, you don't draft Chone Figgins in Round 1. But I don't presume Wright will never hit for power again. Maybe the fences at Citi Field get adjusted, or more importantly, maybe Wright gets surrounded with healthy, stable lineup pieces and returns to being the player who was capable of a 30-homer, 30-steal season. Either way, I'm not giving up on him, and I predict 25-plus homers next season. Anything close to that, combined with the steals and batting average, puts him above the next batch of big first basemen (Teixeira, Miggy).
Speaking of Wright's power outage, if his season really is over, as has been rumored, because of the weekend beaning, he will finish with eight home runs. That is downright shocking. Last season Wright hit seven home runs in two separate months. This is around the time each season I start to look at teams and who leads them in certain categories, just to put things in perspective. You know, like the fact that Braun actually leads the Brewers in stolen bases with 10, and Kevin Correia likely will lead the Padres in wins, losses and strikeouts. Well, who leads the Mets in home runs? It's Gary Sheffield, with 10. Meanwhile, nine Yankees have hit more than that, including Melky Cabrera. The home ballpark accounts for some of this, but not all.
But I do want to thank the Mets for quickly placing Wright on the DL. It sends a message to fantasy owners that they can indeed drop the guy, and opens up a roster spot in many leagues. OK, so I'm not saying I'd drop Wright in every league, but if it's a head-to-head format and you need the roster spot to make the playoffs, you should consider it. There should be more definitive word, and soon, on whether Wright plays in September or not. But I'll never forget being stuck with an active, in-his-prime Ivan Rodriguez for all of September -- I think it was in 2001 -- when the Rangers knew he wouldn't play as a result of an injury but didn't DL him.
7. Mark Teixeira, 1B, Yankees: Again it's about consistency with Tex. I certainly think it's possible other first basemen hit more home runs next season than Teixeira, but every year he has his numbers, and unlike a certain slugger in Philly, he never hurts you in batting average.
8. Ian Kinsler, 2B, Rangers: He'll be making a run at 30-30 in the final month, and the only disconcerting thing about him is his batting average. Really, if everyone thought Grady Sizemore was a first-rounder this season, then Kinsler should be considered the same, especially since he plays a far more scarce position. Sure, I'll submit a .249 batting average is worse than anything Sizemore has ever done, but Kinsler does have a career mark of .281, and Sizemore hit only .268 last season. I'm tempted to put Sizemore back in the top 10, by the way, but he ended up mid-second round in my 2010 rankings.
9. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers: He seems almost bored out there despite being the top power guy for a first-place team. You never hear about Cabrera anymore. There he is again, on pace for 30 homers and 100 RBIs and hitting .330. We'd like to see more RBIs from him, like 120 or so, but part of that is a function of Curtis Granderson and Placido Polanco not being on base enough, or Granderson knocking himself in. Yes, I would still take Cabrera over Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, Evan Longoria and any pitcher.
10. Jose Reyes, SS, Mets: Yes, I would pick him over Crawford, the current leader on our Player Rater. First of all, I don't like taking anyone in Round 1 who doesn't hit home runs. Reyes has more natural pop than Crawford, but neither of them is likely to hit 20 home runs. However, I would be more inclined to take 15 homers and 60 steals from a shortstop than an outfielder. That's all it is. Plus, I don't draft based on the Player Rater. If I did, Javier Vazquez would be a top-five pitcher, and he's not. Crawford comes in around the 12-14 overall range for me, and even then I can't say I wouldn't take Howard or Matt Holliday over him. Everyone loves the stolen bases, but this winter I might put more weight on the fact that a third -- maybe more, by the time October arrives -- of Crawford's steals this season came in May, when he had 21 of them. Reyes should come back healthy and be a nice bargain in 2010, along with Wright and Carlos Beltran. For the record, Johan Santana won't be my first pitcher off the board (Tim Lincecum is), but he still shows up late in Round 2.
Three who missed the top 10:
Joe Mauer, C, Twins: Sorry, but I can't take a catcher in the top 10, even one who suddenly has what appears to be legit power. Will it last? I think it's too early to say it will. I'd predict 15 home runs and a .330 batting average for Mauer in 2010. Position scarcity is wonderful, but I can't justify reaching into the top 10 for it. This still isn't Mike Piazza, and I can't assume Mauer is a safe 30-homer guy moving forward.
Carl Crawford, OF, Rays: Just check his second-half numbers. Everth Cabrera has as many steals, with the same power. Crawford is good, just not top-10 good to me. I mean, what is the difference between Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury at this point? Or Michael Bourn, for that matter? Those guys are younger, and will run just as much, if not more.
Mark Reynolds, 1B/3B, Diamondbacks: He sure makes a compelling case for being in the top 10, but when push comes to shove this winter, I doubt I'll change my mind on this. Reynolds might steal 30 bases this season and hit .280, but many drafters will still regard him as a fluke. I'm still taking the guy in Round 2, but consider this: The Mets' Wright has never done what Reynolds is doing this season in terms of sheer home runs. I don't think Reynolds' power output is too out of whack. For now I would predict 40 home runs and 15 steals from him next season, with maybe a .260 batting average to be safe. That's not bad for Round 2.
Whatever happened to Pat Burrell?
Remember when the Rays were lauded for the "cheap" Burrell signing, and the Raul Ibanez contract in Philly was called ridiculous? I do. Count me among those who thought Burrell would be good in Tampa Bay, though. (My stance on Ibanez was always that it wasn't my $30 million being spent, and at least it wasn't on Milton Bradley.) Burrell continues to struggle at the plate and in the trainer's room, and I don't see much reason for him to be owned in more than half of ESPN's leagues. He has hit 10 home runs, though three of them have come in his past eight games. Consider this a lost season for Burrell, which means he's likely to be so cheap in 2010 drafts that he might be available in the final round. No, seriously. Jim Thome slipped to that point in many mixed drafts this season. There's obviously some inherent risk with older players, but Burrell could deliver 25 home runs next season, and nobody will be thinking about him.
It sure would be nice if the Chris Youngs rebounded in 2010
Forget about Chris Young of the Padres and Chris Young of the Diamondbacks for this season, and don't tell me you saw either of their predicaments coming back in March. The 6-foot-10 starting pitcher for San Diego made only 14 starts this season and is scheduled for shoulder surgery. It would be tough to trust him next season, but you have to like his ability and home ballpark. The big hurler was never the healthiest guy around, but his first two seasons with the Padres were very good in terms of strikeouts and peripheral numbers. He remains owned in nearly half of ESPN's leagues. For now I wouldn't call him a top-50 starter for 2010, but someone to take a chance on and hope for the best.
Meanwhile, I wonder if we'll ever see Arizona's Young do anything close to 32 homers and 27 steals again, which is stunning. Now he's in the minor leagues, watching an Aussie named Trent Oeltjen steal his job. Even the pitcher Chris Young has a higher on-base percentage! The young center fielder never has learned a bit of plate discipline, but I always thought the power and speed would still be there, like a young Mike Cameron. At 25 he's far too young to give up on, but unless he alters his approach, it's hard to see him helping fantasy owners anytime soon. Watch him tear things up at Triple-A Reno, where he can wildly swing away at everything.
Stat of the week: 7
Think the Dodgers' bullpen has been all that and a bag of chips? Well, poor Randy Wolf leads the majors with seven blown wins this season, meaning he left the game with a lead, and the bullpen couldn't hold it. Jonathan Broxton leads all relief pitchers with seven wins, though Wolf started only one of those times. There's often no rhyme or reason to why certain pitchers don't win. Wolf hit and pitched great Sunday, beating Arizona and becoming the first pitcher since Steve Carlton in 1977 to get three hits, three RBIs and 10 strikeouts in a game. Wolf's 7-6 record makes him seem ordinary, but he's seventh in the NL in WHIP and on pace for 169 strikeouts. Other pitchers unlucky enough to have five or more blown wins are Roy Oswalt, Braden Looper and Gavin Floyd. They should never be judged based on that, nor should anyone win a Cy Young award based solely on wins. Sure, that's the ultimate name of the game, but starting pitchers don't have nearly as much control over them as people think.
Good for Felix Pie, Jonny Gomes and Jonathan Sanchez. Each of them made history recently, but I doubt they were owned in your fantasy baseball league when they did it. For those who weren't paying attention, Pie became the seventh player to hit for the cycle this season when he did so last week, Gomes the sixth player this season to have a three-homer game (also last week), and last month Sanchez no-hit the Padres. Best I can tell, if you owned those players on those days, you're one of the very few. Smart fantasy owners judge players based on more than one game's performance, and I'm surprised to say I did not see any jump in those players' fantasy ownership after their feats. I did, however, see those names floated in more trade talks.
Pie is only 24 years old, so it wouldn't be a surprise if he became a fantasy factor in a few years, but he's having another brutal season this time around. Someone offered me Pie last week for a closer, the night after the four-hit game and cycle against the Angels. My first emotion was anger, wondering how someone could believe I would be dumb enough to trade for Pie based on one game. Then I realized a decade ago I probably would have done the same thing. I sent a polite reply and declined the trade offer. I'm calling it fantasy maturity.
Maybe that other owner thought I would be interested in Pie in a moment of fantasy weakness. I can't fault him for trying. Two weeks earlier in that same league I had dealt for Sanchez as part of a bigger trade, not because he had thrown a no-hitter but because he came with other good stuff, and as fifth starters go, one could do worse. I added Gomes as a free agent a month ago. See, it all ties together somehow.
People are always going to make ridiculous trade offers. It's not a designed part of the game, but nobody should begrudge someone for doing so. You don't have to make the deal, but you might find it's a starting point for a legitimate deal. Or you might laugh and move on. But firing back with anger is never the right move. My point is, I'm glad I didn't respond the way I initially wanted to, and might have 10 years ago. I've heard how people always say your first reaction to a question or problem is usually the correct one, but when it comes to trading in fantasy leagues, take a step back, breathe deeply and don't ever make it the only one.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. Check out his daily Baseball Today podcast at ESPN Podcenter. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.