Once a fantasy mega-stud, Vladimir Guerrero is a player in decline. Fortunately, his 2010 owners might not even notice. That's because the slugger picked a team that is perhaps the one situation in all of baseball where his eroding skill set might be entirely kept under wraps: the Texas Rangers.
Guerrero signed a one-year, $6 million contract with a mutual option for 2011, according to ESPNDallas.com, to take over as the Rangers' designated hitter. It's another smart, low-cost move for the team at DH, like the Milton Bradley and Andruw Jones deals of the past two winters, though Guerrero comes to Texas with quite a bit more promise, and a stronger track record, than either. But Bradley and Jones did enjoy modest success in Texas, at least relative to expectations. In 2008 (Bradley's year as DH), the Rangers led American League teams in batting average (.301) and OPS (.915) from DHs. In 2009, Jones (plus DH partner Hank Blalock) helped the Rangers to an AL-best 38 home runs from the position.
Guerrero might give the Rangers a chance at the league lead in both of those categories yet again, though if Rangers DHs are to hit another 38 homers, they'll need a big contribution from someone not named Guerrero. His power is in steep decline: He hasn't hit even 30 homers in a season since 2006, has seen his isolated power (a useful indicator of power, calculated as slugging percentage minus batting average) drop in each of the past two years -- culminating in a career-worst .164 in 2009 -- and is coming off a career worst in home run/fly ball percentage (11.5 percent).
What's worse, Guerrero's walk and strikeout rates have diminished in recent years, capped by a career worst in the former (one walk per 20.16 plate appearances) and his worst in the latter (one strikeout per 6.84 at-bats) since 2001. At his current rate of progression -- or in this case, regression -- Guerrero might have already enjoyed the final .300-hitting season of his career, as free-swinging sluggers with declining bat speed can drop off the table at a moment's notice performance-wise.
Rangers Ballpark, however, should do plenty to mask Guerrero's diminishing skills, and the everyday DH role should help decrease his amount of injury risk. He has historically been a Hall of Fame-caliber talent at Rangers Ballpark, batting .394 with a .471 on-base percentage, .705 slugging percentage and 14 homers in 50 career games there, with numbers as healthy as .440/.500/.640 there in 2009. It's also one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in baseball, routinely ranking among the top 10 in terms of both runs and home runs since its opening in 1994, specifically ranking third in home run/fly ball percentage in 2009 (12.3 percent), behind only Yankee Stadium and Citizens Bank Park. Having such a favorable home venue might inspire Guerrero to one final .300-hitting, 20-homer season, albeit one almost entirely devoid of steals due to his soon-to-be-35-year-old legs.
That doesn't mean fantasy owners should target Guerrero as a top-100 overall player, though he absolutely has the potential to rebound to those levels. He's DH-only in 2010, and should remain that, but don't forget about him as the double-digit rounds approach or arrive. One final concern: Even if Guerrero rebounds nicely, he might be as much a bust candidate entering 2011 as a modest bargain entering 2010, à la Bradley in 2008-09. Don't forget, drop-off-the-table risk!
Here's what else has gone down in the past week:
Cincinnati Reds sign Aroldis Chapman: Yes, you read that correctly, the Cincinnati Reds landed this winter's top foreign import. Even more shocking: Buster Olney indicates that the runner-up in the bidding was the Oakland Athletics! Has the baseball world gone topsy-turvy? Chapman is expected to sign a five-year, $30 million contract, and on a team like the Reds, he should be granted a rotation spot the moment he's deemed big league-ready. The problem: Most scouts feel he is definitely not currently big league-ready, and there's a good chance he'll spend most, if not all, of 2010 in the minors. As Keith Law put it in his free-agent rankings, "He might be a No. 1 starter; he might be an ace closer; he might be a mountain of frustration."
Randy Johnson is often tossed about as a comparison for Chapman, and understand that's a calculated example, as Johnson did average 5.7 walks per nine innings in his first five seasons in the majors, leading the majors in total walks allowed from 1990 to '92. Conversely, Olney tells the tale of another hard-throwing top prospect with command issues, Robbie Beckett -- and no, that's not the guy from "Quantum Leap." Dr. Sam Beckett might have been wise to leap into that guy and help teach him to throw strikes; the 1990 first-rounder walked 841 batters in 857 2/3 professional innings.
Keeper-league owners will find the most value in Chapman, as boom-or-bust as a prospect gets, and redraft NL-only owners or those in deep mixed formats might want to stash him on a bench. Those owners expecting him to make a huge splash this season, however, might very well wind up disappointed, as this is the perfect year to take a wait-and-see approach to his development.
Atlanta Braves sign Troy Glaus: For the fourth consecutive season, the Braves will have a different Opening Day first baseman than the year before, and this year's, if he's healthy, will be one of the more powerful ones the team has had in years. Glaus, who was limited to 14 games with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2009 after recovering from shoulder surgery, belted 20 or more home runs in each of the previous four seasons, and never once from 1999 to 2008 had an isolated power beneath .204. Neither Turner Field nor the Cardinals' park, Busch Stadium, is especially friendly to power hitters, but in terms of Park Factors, at least Turner has outpaced Busch in home runs in each of the latter's four seasons since opening. If healthy, Glaus could belt 25-plus homers, albeit with a batting average that might not exceed .260, but he should also get decent RBI opportunities slotted behind Chipper Jones. Mixed-league owners might not be able to afford this much injury risk, but NL-only owners might find him worth the gamble.
Kansas City Royals sign Scott Podsednik: Here's a useful, cheap signing for the Royals, who inked Podsednik to a one-year, $1.75 million contract with a $2 million option for 2011. He'll take over as the team's starting center fielder (or left fielder if David DeJesus shifts back from left), which is good primarily because it at least guarantees that Willie Bloomquist won't, and Podsednik should man the leadoff spot as well. Podsednik will be hard-pressed to repeat 2009's .304 batting average, as that was largely driven by an unreasonably high .300 BABIP on ground balls, 36 points higher than his career mark in the category. Adjust that number to his career norms and he's more of a .280-hitting, .340-OBP type, which is a much more appropriate expectation and more likely to result in a 20-to-25-steal campaign. That's still valuable in fantasy, though more so in AL-only formats.
Seattle Mariners, Boston Red Sox swap Casey Kotchman, Bill Hall: Boy, you'd think there must be something wrong with Kotchman, who has now been traded three times in a span of 18 months. If so, it's that he has mediocre power for a first baseman (he has never topped 14 home runs in three seasons as a starter). He's a quality defender, though, finishing first in Ultimate Zone Rating among first basemen with at least as many as his 893 1/3 innings in 2009, according to Fangraphs.com, and in the top 10 in each of the previous two seasons, and remember that he batted as high as .296 in 2007 and .324 in his minor league career. Kotchman needs to stop generating so many ground balls, however, to approach those numbers with the Mariners; 57.1 percent of his career balls in play have been grounders, which is shockingly high. He'll get a chance to bounce back on a team thin at first base -- he'll presumably be the Mariners' starter -- but is more of a speculative AL-only pick for those who miss out on the more productive first basemen. Hall, meanwhile, will serve as a utility man for the Red Sox, presumably starting mostly versus left-handers. He's a .270/.339/.471 career hitter against them, though those numbers sagged to .223/.252/.354 in 2009, so consider him only as a daily-league plug-in when the matchup calls.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here.