I've said it before, and I'll say it again: It's the sleepers who win the leagues.
Sure, if two of your first four picks go down in flames, you are at a serious disadvantage. But if the past is any indication, the odds of that happening are still relatively low. That's why they're early-round picks, because you can trust them.
But it's the mid-round picks who perform like top picks, and/or the late-round picks performing like mid-round picks, that make the difference. All the talk heading into a fantasy draft is how the first two rounds will unfold, and that's fun and interesting to discuss. But what we should be talking about is where Geovany Soto, Jonathan Sanchez and Adam LaRoche will be drafted.
Which is why we produce this popular fantasy feature in all the sports we cover: to put sleeper candidates in your head. The table below doesn't include all the sleepers; ask any of our experts, and they can probably name at least three or four per position. But these are the guys who stand out to us, the mid-round or late-round picks that could draw puzzled looks from leaguemates when we take them a round or two before they're expected to go. And our response to those puzzled looks? "I'm in love, and I don't care who knows it!"
But we're not here today just to talk about love, sleepers and players named Geovany. We're here to talk about those early-round picks, or in a few cases mid-round picks, who could go down in flames, taking your season with it. The players who carry plenty of risk, at least relative to their draft value. These are our bust candidates, and we bring them to you not necessarily to have you strike them from your rankings, but rather to have you think twice before drafting them or raising your auction mate a few more dollars. Once again, they're not all of our bust candidates, just the ones that put a constipated look on our face when we consider their value. When asked why we don't like them, our reply is "Bah, humbug!"
With that, I introduce to you ESPN Fantasy's 2010 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts. Please note that the picks themselves, and the rounds we discuss in the analysis, are based on our standard game (10-team mixed league, with 22 players active and three bench slots per team, just one starting catcher and one utility spot). The sleepers and busts tables are below, followed by a handful of explanations from the experts who chose those players. Enjoy! -- Brendan Roberts
ESPN Fantasy's 2010 sleeper selections.
These are all ranked in order of when you can expect to get them, earliest to latest.
Kurt Suzuki, A's (from Matthew Berry): Did you know that Suzuki finished last year as the No. 4 catcher on our Player Rater? Yup, he finished with 15 homers, 88 RBIs and a respectable .274 average and he's still only 26. Sure, he did have a bad OBP last year, and his walk rate went down, but hey, if it means an increase in power (he had 10 of his homers and 51 of his RBIs after the All-Star break), then I'll take it. Once you get past the "Big Three" catchers (Mauer, McCann, V-Mart), the catchers all seem about the same (unless you want to take a flier on Matt Wieters). So why not take one who is still young, has some growth potential and posted 53 extra-base hits in 2009?
Geovany Soto, Cubs (from Keith Lipscomb): It remains to be seen if a healthier and lighter Soto will bounce back, but in leagues in which you're drafting just one catcher, he's worth the risk, because he has previously shown he's capable of putting up top-five catcher numbers (just two years ago). And if it doesn't work out -- or if you really don't like what you see in spring games -- there will be viable options to be had on the free-agent wire.
Bengie Molina, Giants (from Shawn Cwalinski): I could throw out a number of sleeper candidates at catcher, really. With only 10 catchers (one per team) starting in ESPN leagues, there are plenty of good ones available late. In Molina, we're talking a catcher who hit 20 homers and posted 80 RBIs in 2009 being available right around the 16th round. If he is, jump at the chance to get him.
Lance Berkman, 1B, Astros (from Matthew Berry): I keep hearing people say Berkman is done, considering him a bust candidate. Couldn't disagree more. Sure, he had a down year in 2009, but hidden in his season numbers is the fact that he hit .298 with a respectable 15 homers and 51 RBIs from June 1 on, with a .419 OBP that was actually better than his career OBP of .412, and a contact rate, walk rate and HR/AB in the same ballpark. The steals won't return, and he did have a short DL stint in July, but he's a near-lock for a high average, at least 25-30 home runs and 90-plus RBIs. Those numbers are definitely higher than some of the younger players who are being taken before him.
Chris Davis, 1B, Rangers (from Jason Grey): Yes, he struggled mightily in the first half, striking out 114 times in 258 at-bats before being demoted. Although he didn't make excuses, many scouts pointed to his substantial weight loss before the '09 season affecting his rhythm at the plate, as well as his bat path. He eventually made some adjustments, and when he returned from his demotion, he hit .308 with six homers in 133 at-bats. Strikeouts will always be a concern with him, but they haven't stopped Mark Reynolds, and they won't stop Davis either. I'm higher than most on Davis and would grab him in Round 12 or 13, which would be two to four rounds earlier than he is going in early mock drafts.
Adam LaRoche, 1B, Diamondbacks (from Shawn Cwalinski): LaRoche is the Rodney Dangerfield of fantasy baseball; he doesn't "get no respect." He has hit 25 homers in each of the past two seasons while playing home games in unfavorable parks for hitters, and this season he gets to play half his games in one of the better hitters' parks in the league. Granted, LaRoche is a notorious slow starter, but his year-end numbers are very consistent. I will gladly take 25-30 homers and a respectable .270 average in the 22nd round.
Alex Gordon, 3B, Royals (from James Quintong): We waited a few years for his teammate Zack Greinke to break out, and he finally did in 2009. Maybe patience is also the key with Gordon, who missed much of last season because of a hip injury. His numbers were slowly improving entering 2009, so maybe there's a chance he'll finally be the big star many have expected him to be. I'll give him one more chance to prove he's got the goods.
Mark DeRosa, 3B, Giants (from Christopher Harris): I can't sit here and say I'm sure DeRosa will go back to being a .285 hitter with 21 homers and 87 RBIs, the numbers he produced in '08. His batting average dropped off too much in '09 for me to guarantee that. But at an incredibly weak position (third base), DeRosa is a budget option who'll hit for power in the middle of San Francisco's lineup, and I say he'll bounce back from .250 (he hit at least .285 the three previous seasons). He shouldn't be your starting third baseman, but as a corner infielder, you could do worse.
Nick Johnson, 1B, Yankees (from Tristan H. Cockcroft): I can hear the comments now: "What?! Cockcroft thinks Johnson is a sleeper?!" Hey, one of the primary reasons I consider Nick Johnson a "sleeper" is, frankly, he best fits the definition of the term as stated in the dictionary. Understand that there's no way I like Johnson more than a Billy Butler, or a Chris Davis, or heck, even a James Loney. But why can't Johnson thrive as a designated hitter uh, kind of like Hideki Matsui did? With his on-base skills, Johnson would be an ideal No. 2 hitter replacing Johnny Damon, in which case, given 142 games (as many as Matsui played the year after a 93-game 2008 season), he could very well be a .290-hitting, 15-homer, 100-run source. Plus, here's the best part: He's dirt-cheap and is easily replaced in the event of an injury because of the depth at his position.
Jake Fox, 3B/OF, Athletics (from Pierre Becquey): Fox could be a batting-average risk, but since he now plays for the same team that employs Jack Cust and Travis Buck, that won't stop the A's from playing him as long as he keeps getting on base and swinging for the fences. And oh, what power! The former Cubs prospect hit 11 home runs in just 216 at-bats last season after slugging .841 in 164 Triple-A at-bats. He'll never challenge for a Gold Glove award, but the A's can DH him, play him at third base, first base, the outfield and even occasionally use him as a catcher. Fox could easily find 400 at-bats and use them to hit 20 homers and drive in 80, and should he reach the magical five-game mark at catcher by midsummer, those would be welcome stats at a top-heavy but otherwise unremarkable fantasy position.
Marco Scutaro, SS, Red Sox (from AJ Mass): Scutaro is no youngster -- he turns 35 in October -- and if he's not going to bat leadoff, he'll lose close to 100 at-bats from last season's breakout campaign. Still, his solid batting eye and patience at the plate (90 walks in 2009) should give him plenty of opportunities to score runs, especially in Boston's lineup. In fact, because so many people think his 2009 performance was a complete fluke, he's going to drop far lower than he should. Even if he reverts to his 2008 form, he's still a bargain in the late rounds.
Martin Prado, Braves (from Christopher Harris): Maybe it's just a matter of category preference, but if you give me a choice between Prado and, say, Dan Uggla, I take Prado, even though Uggla is ranked well ahead of him. He has a terrific contact rate (90, 87 and 87 percent, respectively, the past three seasons), and he had a respectable 11 dingers in 450 at-bats last year. If he pops just a few more in 600 at-bats, now he's within, say, 15 of Uggla, and Prado hits around .300, compared to Uggla's .240. Plus, you don't have to use a starting-quality draft pick to get Prado; he can fill your MI spot on the cheap.
Scott Sizemore, 2B, Tigers (by Matthew Berry): I'm generally not big on rookies, and the ankle injury Sizemore suffered during the 2009 Arizona Fall League isn't helping matters. But in an interview on the team's official Web site, Sizemore said he'll be ready for spring training, and Jim Leyland said the team's starting second-base job is Sizemore's to lose. Sizemore is 25 years old and coming off a great 2009 performance in the minors, hitting .308 with 17 homers, 66 RBIs and 21 steals in 520 at-bats combined between Double-A and Triple-A. I don't expect him to maintain that batting average in the majors, but I do think he will post double-digit homers and steals totals. After all, he's the reason the Tigers let Placido Polanco walk, and in the very late rounds of your draft he is very much worth a flier.
Josh Hamilton, Rangers (from Christopher Harris): Clearly, as a group we must consider Hamilton super-risky, which explains why a player with his talent is rated "only" No. 23 among outfielders. But I don't think last season's injuries quite mean he's injury-prone. I've heard the argument that maybe substance abuse has made his body brittle. I guess it's possible, but I don't think that supposition should price him down six or seven rounds from last season. All I do know is he's 28, has a great home park, a good lineup all the stuff we loved about him last year.
Jay Bruce, Reds (from Keith Lipscomb): I liked Bruce too much when he was called up to simply give up on him this quickly. And after a horrendous .223 average in 2009, Bruce could wind up as a great value if he can regain his stroke and confidence. Staying on the field wouldn't hurt, either, and if he does that, he should hit 30-plus homers. And while I don't expect miracles in the batting-average department, I still think he can hit .265-.270 this season.
Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies (from Dave Hunter): Fantasy baseball owners everywhere will be kicking themselves for not snagging Gonzalez in the middle rounds of their drafts this season. Gonzalez will hit in the middle of the Rockies' lineup, giving owners the highly sought commodities of power and speed at a very reasonable price. Car-Go should see an increase in his contact rate as he develops, thus cutting down the high strikeout rate he had last season. The 24-year-old youngster is my 2010 "jackpot!" pick of the draft.
Nolan Reimold, Orioles (by Matthew Berry): After coming up from Triple-A last season, Reimold raked, hitting 15 home runs and collecting 45 RBIs in 358 at-bats. And the power is legit -- he hit 25 home runs in Double-A in 2008 -- and with Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, Brian Roberts and Matt Wieters, among others, in tow, the Orioles' offense is going to be better than folks think. His eight stolen bases in just 10 attempts in 2009 is a nice little bonus as well. I think you're looking at a 25-homer, 90-RBI guy with double-digit steals and a .275 average. Not bad for a guy you can get late in a mixed-league draft.
Chris Coghlan, Marlins (from Eric Karabell): The defending NL Rookie of the Year has more power and speed than he let on in 2009, and his .321 batting average was hardly a fluke, Coghlan should look a lot like Dustin Pedroia this season. That's the other nice thing: Coghlan is a second baseman currently playing outfield, so if Dan Uggla gets traded, which could very well happen, Coghlan likely will add the rarer second-base position eligibility to his list of assets.
Franklin Gutierrez, Mariners (from Tristan H. Cockcroft): Go ahead and say that defense doesn't matter in fantasy, but it absolutely does when the player is so skilled at a difficult defensive position that his team can't help but play him as often as humanly possible. Quantity counts! Who's to say, however, that Gutierrez is a mere glove man? He's coming off a season with 18 homers and 16 steals, showed 20/20 ability in the minors and is entering his prime at age 27. These are the types of upside plays I like to slot into my final outfield slot in a mixed league.
Cody Ross, Marlins (from AJ Mass): Ross is the epitome of a free-swinger, as evidenced by his 122 strikeouts and only 34 walks last season. As a result, his batting average is all over the map; his month-by-month marks last year were .217, .287, .302, .221, .300 and .278. Still, the Marlins need power in their lineup, and after Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla, Ross is the next-best option to provide it, quite possibly to the tune of 30 round-trippers if everything falls his way. If you're in a league that counts on-base percentage, we understand why you'd pass, but if not, there's no reason to dismiss Ross.
Jason Heyward, Braves (from Pierre Becquey): There is no shortage of hyperbole to be found when scouts, fans and fantasy players alike fall all over themselves heaping praise on Baseball America's 2009 Minor League Player of the Year. Let me add another one: precocious. The kid hit .352 and slugged .611 at Double-A Mississippi mostly as a 19-year-old, less than two years removed from being drafted by the Braves in the first round out of an Atlanta-area high school. Whether he starts the season in Triple-A -- he had 11 at-bats at that level last season -- or hits his way to a starting job, Heyward is that rare player who could become a major league regular before his 21st birthday (Aug. 9) and go from sleeper this season to top-10 outfielder consideration next season. This talented prospect could make your season, and if you take him late in the teen rounds, he can't break it. So what do you have to lose?
Yovani Gallardo, Brewers (from Pierre Becquey): One of only 10 major league pitchers to break the 200-strikeout mark last season, Gallardo was the only one to do it without also pitching 200 innings. Also, he was the only pitcher with 30 or fewer starts to strike out at least 170 batters and maintain a sub-4.00 ERA. Gallardo will be 24 on Opening Day, and looking for his first back-to-back injury-free seasons after his rookie and sophomore campaigns were interrupted by (non-arm) injuries. Should Gallardo make 33 starts and not fade down the stretch as he did in his first full big league season, he could even regress a little bit overall and still be a top-10 starter that you can get for the price of a No. 2. Now think of the upside if he actually takes a Jon Lester-esque step forward instead?
Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox (from Eric Karabell): Matsuzaka's 2009 campaign was a mess from the beginning, but his strong September showing (3-1, 2.22 ERA) brought back memories of the pitcher who won 33 games for the Red Sox the previous two seasons. He's not going to help you much in WHIP, but a healthy Matsuzaka will earn wins and strikeouts. Don't forget that he was a top-20 pitcher on draft day just one year ago.
Brett Anderson, Athletics (from Keith Lipscomb): This kid is mature beyond his years, and I love the progress he showed as the season went along in 2009 (3.48 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 8.8 Ks per 9 after the All-Star break). His walk rate was impressive in the minors, and he brought that asset to the majors in his rookie season, too.
Rick Porcello, Tigers (from James Quintong): He already has a lot of promise, but many owners might be scared off by the low K/9 rate he posted in his rookie season. Porcello found ways to get outs by forcing plenty of ground balls, and he definitely has the stuff to strike out more batters if he really wants to. I wouldn't be surprised if he makes big strides in his strikeout rate this season. An improvement there, combined with his other already-solid numbers, would make him a late-round bargain.
Erik Bedard, Mariners (from Matthew Berry): My friend Bill Simmons came up with the term "fantasy kryptonite" to describe those players we keep getting sucked in by, only to continually get our hearts broken. The poster boy for this term (and my own personal fantasy kryptonite) might be Bedard, who can't stay healthy. (Wow, just noticed this is the third injury-prone guy among my sleepers. Someone get me Stephania Bell on the phone, pronto.) That said, Bedard has been very effective when healthy. In fact, he had a lower ERA and WHIP and better K/9 and K/BB rate in '09 than '08. With Cliff Lee joining King Felix, Bedard will be the No. 3 starter on a Mariners team that improved its offense in the offseason. He probably won't be healthy to start the season, but again, he has ace skills, and in an ESPN 10-team mixed league you can easily afford to take the chance that he stays healthy in a contract year.
Jonathan Sanchez, Giants (from Tristan H. Cockcroft): Everybody knows all about strikeout artists such as Tim Lincecum, Justin Verlander and even up-and-comer Yovani Gallardo, but one thing you might not realize is that, among qualified starters, Sanchez actually had the second-best swing-and-miss rate in 2009 (26.2 percent), according to FanGraphs. A quick look at his full-season totals of eight wins, a 4.24 ERA and 1.37 WHIP might have you thinking he's a borderline mixed-league pick, but he seemed to "get it" right about the time he fired his no-hitter: He had a 3.46 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP from that date on, as well as the fifth-most strikeouts in baseball (109). Who wouldn't enjoy that level of performance?
Ben Sheets, A's (from Dave Hunter): Sheets hasn't eclipsed the 200-inning mark since the 2004 season, so there's obvious injury risk here. But even if he pitches 150 innings, Sheets will be worth a late-round pick given his career K/BB rate and his overall strikeout potential. There's no denying that when Sheets is healthy, he's one of the best pitchers in the game; just make sure you don't get too antsy and take him earlier than you should. You can live without him if he doesn't fall to you.
Wade Davis, Rays (from Jason Grey): Davis could be one of the most undervalued starting pitchers in the American League this season, given that if he doesn't slot in as the Rays' fifth starter out of camp, he certainly will before long. He struck out a batter per inning in his six starts at the big league level in 2009, showing the promise that has scouts pegging him as a future No. 2 starter. Among his more impressive performances was a 10-K shutout of the Orioles in his third big league start, which also showed he could bounce back after a shellacking (the Red Sox had scored eight runs off him in his previous outing). Davis can dial it up to the mid-90s when he needs to, gets good movement on his sinker, and his curve is a big league swing-and-miss pitch that he can throw strikes with. His performance will come at a bargain price, as he's currently going undrafted in many mixed leagues. I'd reach a bit just to be sure I snagged him.
Matt Capps, Nationals (from Jason Grey): Capps' rough 2009 season likely had a lot to do with health issues, as he battled elbow woes for much of the season. As he got healthier, though, he started to return to form, posting a 6.5-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio after the All-Star break, and a ridiculously high .407 batting average on balls in play ruined any chances for the rest of his second-half numbers to come around. Capps is a good bet for at least 20 saves again this year, and he'll come cheap given last year's ERA and WHIP numbers, meaning these are saves that can be had at a good value.
Luke Gregerson, Padres (from James Quintong): He appears to be the next in line for saves if and when Heath Bell gets dealt. The Padres seem to churn out solid middle relievers each year, and Gregerson is just the latest example. Acquired from the Cardinals last spring as part of the Khalil Greene trade, Gregerson struck out 93 batters in 75 innings. He was a closer in the St. Louis system, so he already appears ready for the job should the opportunity arise. Even if he doesn't get saves right away, his strikeouts make him worth owning.
ESPN Fantasy's 2010 busts selections.
These are all ranked in order of when they can be expected to be taken, earliest to latest.
Joe Mauer, Twins (from Shawn Cwalinski): I'm not saying Mauer will be a catastrophic bust, but there is no way he will be worth the second-round pick he would cost you to get him. Mauer had a great 2009 season, but there are reasons to believe he can't repeat it. Mauer's batting average on balls in play last year was .377, very high for a player who isn't a fast runner. Of more concern to me, though, is Mauer's sudden power explosion in 2009. In 2005, only 8.7 percent of the catcher's fly balls were homers. In 2006, that climbed to 10.8 percent, then slid back to 7.2 percent in 2007 and 6.5 percent in 2008. In 2009, an incredible 20.4 percent of Mauer's fly balls left the yard. Long story short, expect a regression in both Mauer's batting average and home run production this year. Not that .335 with 20 homers are bad numbers at all, but they are not good enough to justify a second-round pick in a league with only 10 catchers starting.
More on Joe Mauer (from Pierre Becquey): Mauer won't be a bad player, but for the value you'll have to assign him in the preseason, he has some serious bust potential. Yes, catcher is shallow, and yes, Mauer's best season still conceivably could be ahead of him (if you think he can somehow top last season's .365-94-28-96 campaign) and yes, he's the greatest thing to happen to Minneapolis-St. Paul since the invention of the snowblower, but keep these facts in mind. He has missed time with back, ankle, shoulder, hamstring and quadriceps injuries in his career. In past seasons, he has hit, in succession, .294, .347, .293, .328 and .365, which is a pretty wide range of possibilities. And finally, the Twins are moving to a new outdoor stadium. While Mauer was in no way dependent upon the Metrodome for his success, there's no telling whether the new yard will be to his liking. Just ask those who invested a first-round pick in David Wright last season if they'd like to have that pick back.
Matt Wieters, Orioles (from Dave Hunter): I'm as enamored with Wieters as much as the next guy, but I'm just not going to pay the going rate for him. I would much rather land a guy like Geovany Soto or Miguel Montero four rounds later and use the Wieters draft slot on a bat I know I can count on. Wieters' youth and lack of major league experience leave enough of a question mark in my mind that I'd let someone else take a chance on him breaking out this season.
Jorge Posada, Yankees (from Matthew Berry): I know, I know. Great lineup, they'll DH him a lot this year to keep him fresh, he'll play half his games at Yankee Stadium, blah, blah, blah. Posada had one of his most productive seasons in terms of home runs per at-bat, and I'm sure he'll do just fine. But he will turn 39 this year -- I enjoy watching him on ESPN Classic -- and in a lot of the early drafts I see, he's being taken fifth among catchers, behind Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez, Brian McCann and Matt Wieters. And like I said (above) with Kurt Suzuki, I feel they are all the same after that. I feel I can wait five or even 10 rounds and get similar production.
Russell Martin, Dodgers (from Tristan H. Cockcroft): I firmly believe that Joe Torre, and Grady Little before him, might have already ruined Martin. Not to the point where he can't be a useful major league catcher, mind you, but certainly to the point that he's no longer a top-five fantasy backstop. Martin seems to suffer from "Jason Kendall syndrome." The "tools of ignorance" seem to have worn him down right at a time when a player traditionally would be in the midst of his prime. Sure, there's bounce-back potential in Martin's bat, but his days of double-digit steals might be behind him, and that facet of his game drives a large part of his fantasy value.
Mark Reynolds, 1B/3B, Diamondbacks (from Tristan H. Cockcroft): This one is as simple as his earning potential versus his average draft position. I've seen Reynolds go as high as the second round in a number of early drafts, and he's a consensus top-25 player according to many sources (fortunately, not us). But I currently have him ranked 46th and even at that spot he scares me. Somehow I find it hard to believe a hitter who posted the sixth-worst contact rate in major league history (61.4 percent) can maintain even a .260 batting average, not to mention a 26.0 home run/fly ball percentage. Plus, Reynolds would have to steal another 20-plus bases to have any chance at a top-25 season, and I just don't see that happening either.
Chone Figgins, 3B, Mariners (from Keith Lipscomb): I'm just not willing to spend a seventh- or eighth-round pick on a corner infielder who has hit .300 just once and has nine home runs in the past three years combined. Sorry, Mr. Figgins. Nothing personal.
Garrett Atkins, 1B/3B, Orioles (from Jason Grey): Yes, calling Atkins a "bust" is an easy thing to do, but I'm making the point that I wouldn't draft him at all. I can find much better players to take a chance on in the reserve rounds. Atkins has even been going as high as the 19th or 20th round of early mock drafts after he signed with the O's to be their starting first baseman, but there's still no way I'm biting on that. Four straight years of statistical decline across the board resulted in him losing his starting job last year. His poor career stat line away from Coors (.252 average, .324 OBP, .411 slugging percentage), increasing troubles against right-handed pitching in the past two seasons and declining bat speed all spell trouble, and the likelihood that he'll lose his starting job again.
Ian Kinsler, Rangers (from Matthew Berry): He's awesome when healthy; I'm not arguing that. But he has played more than 130 games exactly once in his four-year major league career (and one year he had 130), and to get Kinsler, you're gonna have to take him in the second round. Considering his .253 batting average last year (I know, his BABIP was really low, but still), he's too much of a risk for me that high up.
Jose Reyes, SS, Mets (from AJ Mass): Call me a pessimist, but even if Reyes makes a complete recovery from the hamstring injury that cost him most of 2009, there's no way the Mets give him an automatic green light on the basepaths. They'll likely take the cautious route, and drafting a 10-homer, 50-RBI player who might steal only 20 bases in the first few rounds seems to me to be an incredibly risky thing to do, and again, that's without any setbacks from his injury.
Brian Roberts, 2B, Orioles (from Christopher Harris): There are signs that Roberts is diminishing in fantasy value. He's still an amazing doubles hitter, but his OBP dropped 20 points from 2008 to '09, and his ground ball rate dipped as he transitioned into slightly more of a power hitter. He attempted "only" 37 steals (and was successful on 30), compared to 57 and 50 attempts in 2007 and '08, respectively. What if that's a trend? Listen, he's still good, but I worry that he's not an elite fantasy middle infielder, and might not be worth what you have to pay to get him.
Clint Barmes, 2B, Rockies (from Eric Karabell): Many fantasy owners will see the 23 home runs and believe Barmes makes for the perfect middle infielder, but the .245 batting average is the statistic more likely to be repeated. Barmes has the look of a utility infielder, one who has averaged just 76 games in his seven major league seasons, and in 2010, Barmes will lose playing time to speedy Eric Young Jr., a legitimate fantasy sleeper.
Justin Upton, Diamondbacks (from Christopher Harris): OK, so I don't actually consider him a likely "bust," which connotes a terrible season. It's just that I don't want to pay for the tippy-top of his potential, which is what you'd pay for if you consider him the No. 4 outfielder (as we do in our group ranks). No question Upton could post a 30-homer, 30-steal season in 2010, and if he does, this call looks silly. But he slowed down in the second half last year, and I think he's a .275 hitter right now. I prefer the greater known quantities of Matt Holliday, who is ranked a few spots behind Upton.
Nick Markakis, Orioles (from Matthew Berry): From 18 to 10 to six his steals are heading in the wrong direction, which leaves us with what, exactly? A guy who will hit around 20 homers, collect 90 or so RBIs and post a nice .290 average. That's solid, but is it worth reaching for him in the fifth or sixth round? No, not when guys like Torii Hunter are being taken in the 10th round.
Curtis Granderson, Yankees (from Pierre Becquey): Yeah, yeah, yeah, he kills the ball to right field, so Yankee Stadium suits him just fine. But honestly, if I thought for one minute that he wasn't going to try to kill the ball to right field in every at-bat he gets in his new home, I probably wouldn't place him here. This is a guy who hit just .249 last season in a hefty 631 at-bats and saw his on-base percentage regress from back-to-back .360-plus seasons to .327, and it wasn't just the career-low batting average on balls in play that was to blame; his contact rate and walk percentage also were down. I can't pretend to know that Granderson does worse overall when he's pressing for power, but that's a very real possibility, and one that makes paying the price it will take to get him (based on those who will expect a .280 average, 40 homers and 20 steals) a little too steep for my taste.
Josh Hamilton, Rangers (from Jason Grey): Hamilton admitted in his own book that his ability to stay healthy over the long haul is an unknown, given the abuse that he has put his body through. He has had just one healthy season in three, and even in the healthy one he wore down considerably as the year went along. An assortment of aches, pulls and strains may continue to be issues, if not more serious problems, and it makes me hesitant to pull the trigger on him in the high rounds that he will no doubt be taken in. It would not surprise me to see Hamilton on the disabled list yet again at some point this season. Of course, if he's healthy and able to make 550-600 trips to the plate, all bets are off, but I don't want to pay the going rate. He's included in this category strictly for health concerns, not performance concerns.
Manny Ramirez, Dodgers (from Tristan H. Cockcroft): This isn't the first time I've been anti-Manny heading into a season, but there's a trend here that I simply can't ignore. Manny had a monstrous 80-game stretch from Aug. 1, 2008, to May 6, 2009, during which he had .380-23-73 numbers with a 1.200 OPS then promptly drew a 50-game suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Something about that leaves a funny taste in my mouth. Maybe, just maybe, it's the .269-13-43 (.881 OPS) numbers he had in 77 games after returning from suspension? Hmm.
Michael Bourn, Astros (from Dave Hunter): I know that Bourn is a speed demon, racking up 61 stolen bases last season, but I'm not convinced he can hit .285 again. Bourn's unusually high BABIP (.365) leads me to believe he's in for a letdown season. The question you have to ask yourself is whether the potential 40-50 stolen bases are worth the dump in batting average. As such, don't take Bourn ahead of players like Andre Ethier and Bobby Abreu.
Alfonso Soriano, Cubs (from Eric Karabell): A dominant fantasy option only three seasons ago, Soriano's decline has been swift, and there's little hope he'll be able to deliver the lofty stolen base totals of old. The power is still there, as he has hit 49 home runs in the past two seasons despite missing 98 games. Expect the power numbers to continue, but he'll combine them with a low batting average and plenty of missed games. Let someone else reach for him in the first 10 rounds.
Adam Jones, Orioles (from AJ Mass): Jones came out of the gate strong in 2009 but started a June swoon that he never really rebounded from; his batting average tumbled from .344 all the way down to .277 by season's end. Jones has plenty of growth left in him, but I'm not sure 2010 will be the season he takes that huge leap forward. He still doesn't hit enough fly balls and swings at far too many pitches out of the strike zone for me to feel comfortable with "Dig Dug" as one of my first three outfielders.
Carlos Quentin, White Sox (from Keith Lipscomb): While I can understand why owners are intrigued by his upside, I can't help but shy away because of his inability to stay on the field. And with his crazy batting-average fluctuation during his young career, I'd rather take a chance on someone else (like Jay Bruce, for example) many rounds later in the outfield.
Rajai Davis, A's (from James Quintong): Of all the highly ranked speedsters, I'm probably the least optimistic about Davis' overall stats this season. He probably can still pile up a ton of steals, even in minimal playing time (as he has done in other stages of his career), but I guess I'm not sold that he can come anywhere close to the .305 average (thanks to a .325 mark after the All-Star break last season) again in 2010. Relying on him for anything but steals is not wise, and if he struggles with the bat, he'll have trouble matching the 41 steals he posted in 2009.
Zack Greinke, Royals (from AJ Mass): Greinke was nearly unhittable last April and May, going 8-1 with a 1.10 ERA, and even with a repeat of that level of brilliance, which I'm not counting on, I wouldn't take him in the first three rounds. That's just a reflection of my own personal view on waiting on starting pitching, because even the elite starters can't contribute in all their position's categories the way elite hitters can. Plus, the Royals aren't suddenly turning into 90-game winners, so Greinke's chances to win, say, 20 games are already at a severe disadvantage.
Javier Vazquez, Yankees (from Christopher Harris): If I know one thing about Javy Vazquez, it's that he pitches worse when the lights are brightest. I think having him as our No. 14 starter is really high. He's returning to the AL East, and the last season he pitched for the Yankees, his ERA was 4.91. And that was at old Yankee Stadium; how's that short porch looking now? His WHIP will be solid and he should get some wins, but I worry about his ERA and his potential for a Big-Apple-based implosion. There are just so many other good, and less risky, starters.
Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers (from James Quintong): Yes, he has great stuff, and he improved greatly in the second half, but I'm concerned about his high number of walks. Plus, the high pitch counts that can result from all those walks could impact how long he stays in games, costing him some extra wins (much like what happened in 2009). Obviously, he has plenty of upside, and he still deserves a spot on your team based on his K rate alone, but pay too much for him and you could get burned not only in wins but in the ratio categories as well.
Jair Jurrjens, Braves (from Shawn Cwalinski): Both Jurrjens' strikeout rate and ground-ball percentage declined last season, yet somehow Jurrjens managed to lower his ERA by more than a full point and lower his WHIP from 1.37 to 1.21. How'd that happen? Well, Jurrjens had luck on his side, and I'm not counting on that luck to continue. Jurrjens will be a decent starter, but he will have the draft price tag of a No. 3 mixed-league starter, and he won't perform up to that. You should be able to get a pitcher with, say, 14 wins, 150 strikeouts, a 3.80 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP much later than the 13th-round pick it will take to get Jurrjens.
Brian Fuentes, Angels (from Shawn Cwalinski): I used to be a big Fuentes fan, back in the days when you could get him in the middle to late rounds of drafts. To get Fuentes these days you likely will have to take him by the end of Round 11, and there's just too much risk there for a pitcher whose ERA and WHIP went up, and K/9 rate went down, in 2009 despite his having left the Rockies and hitters' park Coors Field. There are times when you can pay for saves, but Fuentes' saves are not the ones you want to pay for this year.
More on Brian Fuentes (from Jason Grey): The Angels were concerned enough about Fuentes' ups and downs while saving 48 games last year that they brought in Fernando Rodney, just in case. Fuentes' strikeout rate plummeted in the second half in 2009 (to 4.4 K's per 9, down from 10 K's per 9 before it), as the movement on his slider completely disappeared, meaning he couldn't get the swings-and-misses from it he was used to getting. Already a pitcher that uses deception, not raw power, to get hitters out, it's just as bothersome that Fuentes' fastball was almost 2 mph slower last year. Despite his good team situation and gaudy save total from 2009, he's a very shaky bet for me. I'll take my chances later in the draft on lesser-tier closers instead of taking Fuentes in the 10th or 11th round, which is about when he's likely be taken.
Carlos Marmol, Cubs (from Pierre Becquey): Marmol is as combustible as they come. He has two things you want from a fantasy reliever: a closer job to himself and a strikeout rate north of 11 batters per nine innings. And two you don't: control issues and a hard-throwing setup man who doesn't have control problems (Angel Guzman). No player's value in baseball fluctuates as wildly as a closer's, and given his control problems, it's unlikely Marmol has a lot of job security. Hey, it's not like this guy has much of a track record as a closer, either. He is the proud owner of 23 career saves (in 239 appearances), 15 of which came in 2009 after he replaced Kevin Gregg, who couldn't overcome his two flaws: a tendency to give up the long ball and a hard-throwing setup man who doesn't give up the long ball. What's that they say about history repeating itself?
Leo Nunez, Marlins (from Eric Karabell): Relief pitchers who allow 13 home runs in their debut season as a closer don't often keep that ninth-inning role for long. Nunez made it through the 2009 season with the help of a deceptive delivery and big ballpark, but of all the franchises to avoid when it comes to closers, it's the Marlins. Let's just say it's not a coincidence they have had seven closers in the past eight seasons.