Archive for 2010 Second Opinion

Big Questions Will Be Answered in 2010

Each team in baseball opens the year with half a dozen or more storylines that will determine how its season will play out. But some go beyond Player X staying injury-free or Player Y taking the great-leap-forward. So, here are some of the big-picture items to look at as the 2010 season unfolds.

How Will Target Field Play?

It is always exciting when a new ballpark opens. Frequently, we get a massive upgrade in facilities with the opening of a new park and that will certainly be true in Minnesota, as the Twins move from a dome to an open-air facility. For the past 28 seasons, the Twins have played indoors, sharing their park with the Vikings while playing in a stadium more suited for football.

As we saw last year with the two new parks in New York, one can never be certain of exactly how a new ballpark will play. How many people expected the Yankees’ new place to be the best home-run park in baseball? How many spectators predicted that Citi Field would spook David Wright and help cut his home-run output to one-third of what it had been previously?

Last year, Mall of America Field reversed a three-year trend of cutting both home runs and runs by playing as a hitters’ park. The Twins and their opponents combined to score 830 runs and hit 189 homers in Minnesota in 82 games, while in 81 road games the numbers were 752 and 168, respectively. The top five home-run hitters for the Twins – Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Joe Mauer, Joe Crede, and Delmon Young – combined to hit 145 homers. Eighty of those home runs came in their home park.

The dimensions are nearly identical between Target Field and Mall of America Field in right field and right center. The new park will be a few feet shorter from center over to left field. The wall in left will be eight feet high, a foot higher than in the old park. While the 23-foot high wall in the old park was located merely in right field, the new park will have a wall that high from right center to the right field foul pole. Officials expect the park to play “neutral,” but it remains to be seen how the Twins will do outside in their new surroundings.

Will the Red Sox Have a 30-Home-Run Hitter?

For years the Red Sox offense was defined by the 1-2 punch of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. From 2003 to 2007, the duo averaged more than 77 homers per season. Last year, Jason Bay hit 36 bombs for Boston. But with Bay gone and Ortiz no longer a guarantee to hit 30 long flies, who will provide the big bat in the middle of the order for the Red Sox? Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis, Mike Cameron, and Victor Martinez are all capable of putting up a 30-homer season but none of them are predicted to reach 30 bombs by the Bill James Projections. The Red Sox won two World Series in the last decade and consider themselves contenders for another title. But no team has won a World Series this century without at least one player recording 30 or more home runs.

Will the Mets Fare Better in Year Two at Citi Field?

Shea Stadium was known as a pitcher’s park. But in its final season, the Mets hit 95 homers in Shea Stadium. Last year, in the first season at Citi Field, the Mets club managed just 49 bombs in its home park. Now, the Mets’ home run problems were not limited to Citi Field, as the club managed only 46 homers in road parks. But the perception of Citi as an extreme pitcher’s park in part influenced the team’s decision to make Jason Bay its primary offseason acquisition, even though a younger, better all-around player in Matt Holliday was also a free agent at the same position. Holliday had a 5.7 WAR last year compared to a 3.5 mark for Bay.

The Mets cited Bay’s home-run power and his pull tendencies as reasons for preferring him over Holliday. Will Bay be able to approximate either the 36 homers he hit overall last year or the .936 home OPS he posted in 2009? If he does, will the Mets continue to base offseason decisions on players they believe will “fit” their home park? And if Bay flops and none of the other players step up with a big home-run season, will the club alter the dimensions of its new park?

Will the Jorge de la Rosa-Ubaldo Jimenez Combination Become the Best in Baseball?

When the Mariners acquired Cliff Lee, many offered Lee and Felix Hernandez as the top pitching tandem in baseball. Others countered with Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter, or Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, or C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. But hardly anyone mentioned the Rockies’ duo of Jorge de la Rosa and Ubaldo Jimenez.

Last year, de la Rosa and Jimenez combined for 31 wins and 391 strikeouts, totals that stack up with any of the other tandems mentioned above. After the All-Star break, the two combined for a 19-5 record with a 3.26 ERA and had 191 Ks in 190.2 innings pitched. The duo helped lead the Rockies to the playoffs as Colorado won 45 games in the second half to claim the Wild Card.

Why are de la Rosa and Jimenez not considered as an elite tandem? Neither Rockies pitcher was considered top-shelf material while in the minors. Jimenez ranked 84th on Baseball America’s Top 100 prospect list in 2007, while de la Rosa never made any of the publication’s lists. Neither pitcher had much success until last year and, even then, de la Rosa’s ERA was 4.38 for the season. And many will contend that pitching in the heartland hurts when it comes to publicity.

But if de la Rosa and Jimenez can match their second half numbers for an entire season in 2010, no one will doubt them. And the Rockies club, which finished three games behind the Dodgers for the NL West title last year, will become the class of the division.

Will the Braves Have One Last Hurrah for Bobby Cox?

As a ballplayer, Bobby Cox was nothing special. In two seasons in the Majors he put up a .225/.310/.309 line. But as a manager, Cox will likely make the Hall of Fame. A four-time winner of the Manager of the Year award, Cox guided his team to 14 first-place finishes in 15 years. He was the skipper for five NL Pennants and one World Series championship. Overall, Cox ranks fourth among managers with 2,413 wins in 28 years.

The Braves have missed the playoffs the past four years, but last season’s 86 wins was their highest total since 2005. The club enters the season with a top-notch rotation and a revamped bullpen. Offensively, the Braves hope that Chipper Jones can shake off his late-season slump and that Troy Glaus can stay healthy for the majority of the year.

If Atlanta finds itself in the middle of the pennant race, will it make moves to acquire a veteran bat to give Cox one last shot at a World Series? For years, the Braves were known as an organization that made shrewd trades. But the big push for Mark Teixeira in 2007 really hurt the farm system and did not pay off in a playoff berth. If the Braves club finds itself in the hunt, will management be gun shy with the memory of the Teixeira deal or will it go all-in to send Cox out on a high note?

Who Will Dave Duncan Work Miracles on Next?

In 2009, Joel Pineiro was the latest pitcher that St. Louis Cardinals coach Dave Duncan transformed into a surprise winner. From 2004 to 2008, Pineiro was 35-47 with a 5.34 ERA. Last year, with the addition of a two-seam fastball, Pineiro won 15 games and posted a 3.49 ERA. He joined a long line of Duncan-aided success stories, including Kyle Lohse, Todd Wellemeyer, Jason Marquis, Jeff Suppan, Brett Tomko, and Darryl Kile, among many others. Which St. Louis pitcher will come out of nowhere to post a big season in 2010?

How Will the McCourt Divorce Affect the Dodgers?

The local media likes to give Dodgers owner Frank McCourt a hard time about making his fortune with parking lots. But under McCourt, the Dodgers advanced to the NLCS in back-to-back years for the first time since 1977-1978. The Dodgers organization had not even won a playoff game since 1988 when McCourt took control prior to the 2004 season. Since then the club has made the playoffs in four of six seasons and has maintained one of the top payrolls in the game.

But since the end of last season, when strains in the marriage between Frank and Jamie McCourt became public, it has been a different story. The Dodgers did not offer arbitration to any of their free agents, clearly afraid that someone would accept and win a big pay day while the team’s ownership status was in flux during the divorce proceedings.

While losing Randy Wolf, Jon Garland, Orlando Hudson, Mark Loretta, Jim Thome, and Will Ohman from last year’s club, the only moves the Dodgers have made so far has been to sign veteran utility man Jamey Carroll and deal Juan Pierre in a cost-cutting move. Right-hander Vicente Padilla was recently re-signed after coming over to the club in a mid-season trade in ’09.

Will the Dodgers make any moves to add more depth to its pitching before the start of the year? And if the team is in contention, will it be able to pull off a trade to add payroll? On the flip side, if the Dodgers fall behind early, will the club look to move Manny Ramirez or any other veteran making more than minimum wage? Will the unsettled ownership situation lead to a quicker decision on in/out of the playoff chase than normal?

Will the Yankees Be Able to Repeat Their Prolific Offensive Season?

Last year, eight of the nine regulars for the Yankees posted an OPS+ of 125 or more, as the team scored 915 runs – the most in the Majors. Only center fielder Melky Cabrera failed to reach that level, and he was hardly a slouch with a 99 OPS+. However, the Yankees organization replaced him with Curtis Granderson, who put up a 123 OPS+ in 2008 and 135 in 2007.

The Yankees lost DH Hideki Matsui, but have already replaced him with Nick Johnson, who posted an OPS+ of 122 last year and 124 in 2008. Johnny Damon also may not return, but the Yankees are likely to replace him with a bat, too.

New York enjoyed great health in 2009. Only Jorge Posada failed to get 500 plate appearances among expected starters and even he played in 111 games. Also, the Yankees enjoyed great rebound seasons last year from Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter, and Nick Swisher. Those three posted OPS+ numbers of 86, 102 and 92, respectively, in 2008. Can everything fall in place in back-to-back seasons offensively for the Bronx Bombers?

Can the Mariners Offense Catch Up to Its Pitching and Defense?

After five years of middle-of-the-road offensive performance, where he posted wOBAs ranging from .344 to .359, Raul Ibanez left the Mariners as a free agent prior to the 2009 season. The main outfielder imported was Franklin Gutierrez, who posted a .337 wOBA. Yet, Gutierrez was widely hailed as one of the reasons Seattle improved from 61 to 85 wins. Gutierrez took over center-field duties and posted a 27.1 UZR/150. Ibanez had posted back-to-back double-digit negative UZR/150 seasons his final two years in Seattle.

The Mariners led the American League with a .710 Defensive Efficiency Rating last year. In 2008, the club ranked 13th with a .679 mark. The outfield of Gutierrez, Ichiro Suzuki and a revolving door in left field, which included Wladimir Balentien, Endy Chavez, and Ryan Langerhans (who each posted double-digit UZR/150 marks in left), was one of the best fielding groups of recent memory. Among players who played at least 50 games, only shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt had a negative UZR/150. He was replaced with Jack Wilson, who notched a 14.3 UZR/150 in 31 games.

The improved defense undoubtedly helped the pitching, which led the AL with a 3.87 ERA. So the 2009 Mariners club was first in pitching, first in defense, but last in runs scored with 640 – 275 runs behind the AL-leading Yankees. The Mariners imported Chone Figgins to help the offense but must find a replacement for free agent first baseman Russell Branyan, who had a team-leading 31 homers and 76 RBI. Can a team with only two players likely to exceed a .350 wOBA – Ichiro and Figgins – make the playoffs?

Did the Phillies Make the Right Choice in Trading Cliff Lee?

The Phillies acquired Cliff Lee at the trading deadline last year and he proceeded to win seven games down the stretch and was the club’s best pitcher in the postseason. Lee went 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in five playoff games last year and his two victories in the World Series were the only games won by the Phillies. But Lee was a free agent following the 2010 season and Philadelphia opted to trade him and acquire Roy Halladay in a multi-team, multi-player deal. The deal was contingent on signing Halladay to an extension, which the Phillies were able to do.

Meanwhile, after the trade, Lee expressed surprise that the Phillies dealt him, as he thought the two sides were closing in on a new contract. Philadelphia made the decision to spend the money on Halladay rather than Lee, but should they have kept both players for the 2010 season? With the Phillies’ offense, having Halladay and Lee at the top of their rotation would have been an imposing threat for other teams in the National League.

Now the Phillies are hoping that Cole Hamels can bounce back and be the club’s second starter behind Halladay. After out-performing his FIP in both 2007 and 2008, Hamels experienced some bad luck in 2009. His FIP shows him as essentially the same pitcher from 2006 to 2009, but the results were markedly worse last year than 2008. If Hamels posts an ERA that matches his career FIP of 3.79, will the Phillies be happy with that production from the second starter?

Philadelphia restocked its farm system by trading Lee. But is the haul of Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies, and JC Ramirez better than a season of Lee and two draft picks? Conventional wisdom says that the Phillies made it to back-to-back World Series with just half a season of Lee. The Major League team is better off with a full season of Halladay and the minor league system is better with the prospects. But anything less than a World Series victory will leave fans wondering how things would have been with Lee still on the team.

Back from the Dead

Every year, there’s a slew of players that miss the entire season, or close to it, with injury problems. But 2009 was a different year. Not only were there low-level players missing time, but some high=profile players were among them. A Cy Young winner, an Olympic champion, and a couple of All-Stars were all out for most of the 2009 baseball season, but are ready to come back in 2010 and give it another run.

Injured players are always tricky to value on draft day. Chien-Ming Wang leaves a permanent scar in my mind as a player who seemed to be healthy, but was really covering up an injury and rushing back for the ’09 season. Fantasy owners have no way to know this, so injured players will always be drafted lower than their value dictates. If you make the right choice and find an injured player who returns to his previous level of performance, you could find yourself in the top of the standings come year’s end.

Here is a look at some of the top players coming back from a severely shortened, or non-existent, 2009 campaign.

Justin Duchscherer, SP, Athletics

From 2004 to 2006, Duchscherer was an outstanding bullpen arm for the Oakland A’s. In 2007, he hit the DL in May with a right hip strain and did not pitch again for the rest of the season. Duchscherer’s first real season as a big league starter in 2008 put him on the map for fantasy owners. He made an All-Star game appearance and was in Cy Young talks until his hip flared up again and he was forced to miss the last month of the season. During spring training of 2009, Duchscherer went down with an elbow injury and did not pitch in the Majors during the 2009 season. However, most of his issues did not stem from his elbow, but from a bout with depression. He made three rehab starts in late July and early August, so the elbow should be fine going into the 2010 season. He seems to have gotten control of his demons, so another strong season from Duchscherer seems in order. He is a great sleeper candidate going into drafts, as he will give you ace-like production from a late-round pick.

Troy Glaus, 1B/3B, Braves

After a nice first season with the Cardinals in 2008, Glaus missed all but 14 games in the 2009 season. He underwent surgery on his right shoulder in late January and began a minor league rehab stint in July. He stayed in the minors until September, when he was taken off the DL and placed on the big league roster. He didn’t exactly shine in the month of September, making his brief 2009 season a forgettable one. He looks to be completely healthy heading into 2010 and will be holding down the first-base job for the Braves. While he probably won’t have first-base eligibility heading into drafts, Glaus will be able to play at both corner infield spots soon after the season begins, helping his value. A year like he had in 2008 (.270/27/99) isn’t out of the question, but the best bet is that he will regress a bit due to his age (33).

Shaun Marcum, SP, Blue Jays

After his first season as a full-time starter in 2008, Marcum had Tommy John surgery on his elbow and was scheduled to miss all of the 2009 season. However, his progress was well ahead of schedule and there was talk that he may have been ready to return to the big leagues late in the 2009 season. However, he stayed on the sidelines and now appears ready for the 2010 season. In 2008, Marcum started 25 games and compiled nine wins, a 3.39 ERA and a 7.31 K/9. Marcum was a nice surprise in 2008, and he should slip to a nice value pick in 2010 drafts.

Xavier Nady, RF, Free Agent

After playing for the Yankees in the second half of 2008, Nady was forced to battle Nick Swisher for the starting right-field job in New York. He won the job and started for the Yankees during his 2009 season. All seven games of it. Nady went down early with an elbow injury, and ended up having Tommy John surgery in July. Nady thinks he’ll be ready to go to start the ’09 campaign, but that is an optimistic approach. When healthy, Nady hit 25 homers with a .305 average in 2008; however, his average was inflated due to a high BABIP in Pittsburgh, so if he is back to normal, expect it to fall closer to his .280 career batting average. Because his offensive production is only good and not great, couple that with an injury issue, and you have a player to stay away from.

Ben Sheets, SP, Oakland

In what should be a surprise to no one, the oft-injured Sheets missed the entire 2009 season after undergoing surgery on his right elbow. The 2008 season was the first one since 2004 that Sheets made 30 or more starts. His strikeout rate was down to 7.17 K/9 in ’08, which surprisingly was up from his 6.75 K/9 in 2007. Everyone thinks of Sheets as a big strikeout pitcher, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. However, he doesn’t walk hitters, either, as witnessed by a 1.15 WHIP in his last season of work. Everyone knows Sheets’ injury history and most aren’t scared off by it. Combine that with his lower than assumed strikeout rate and you have a pitcher to stay away from.

Brandon Webb, SP, Diamondbacks

After winning the NL Cy Young award in 2006, Webb finished second in the voting in 2007 and 2008, and seemed primed for another Cy run in 2009. Starting on opening day for the Diamondbacks, Webb left after four innings with soreness in his throwing shoulder. Webb and the team originally thought it was nothing serious, but he ended up missing the entire season and had surgery in early August. Webb pitched at least 200 innings every year since 2004, and has been an absolute workhorse for the D-Backs. If he is truly healthy, he should be in line for another great year due to his outstanding sinker. If he can pitch another full season, 15 wins to go along with a sub 3.50 ERA and 180 strikeouts are more than possible, they are likely. He should be great value on draft day, but his shoulder will always be a concern.

Other notable players like Jeff Francis (SP, COL), Joey Devine (RP, OAK), and Jake Westbrook (SP, CLE) are all good players to take a chance on in deeper leagues, as they will be back for the start of the year or shortly thereafter. Blue Jays pitchers Dustin McGowan and Jesse Litsch are both going to miss the first month of the year or more, so wait to see if they are healthy before picking them up off the waiver wire.

Be smart when drafting the aforementioned players. Know their injuries and protect your roster by drafting dependable players around them. If you get it right, the rewards will be great. If you get it wrong and don’t protect yourself, your team will crumble.

Sifting Through the Sophomores

It’s time to look at last year’s rookies. Because the player caps for each of these players will provide you more in-depth detail than we can hope to provide in an overview, this article will attempt to quickly point out one or two pieces of evidence that might predict an improvement or a decline in the stats of the following 2009 rookies. Once you spot an opinion you don’t agree with, check the player capsule, the FanGraphs stats, and come join us at the website and the boards for what will surely be a lively discussion about the future of these (mostly) young players coming off their debut seasons.

National League

Tommy Hanson: Though his strand rate (80.3%) and BABIP (.280) could regress a little and provide him some problems, Hanson had serious strikeout ability (8.18 K/9) and his minor league numbers seem to suggest that even better performances are on the way. It helps that he plays in the inferior league and that his arm has been built up reasonably gently. Best bet: improve.

Andrew McCutchen: The wheels and the batting average are legit, and the only question is whether McCutchen will show the same pop in the future. True, his ISO last year (.185) bested every minor league seasons save one, but McCutchen put more balls into the air (39.1%) and over the fence (8.8%) than a pure speedster might. As his frame fills out, the power may prove legit. Best bet: improve.

Colby Rasmus: Last year Rasmus showed reasonable power (.156 ISO), but lacked the speed we saw in the minors (74 stolen bases, 81.3% success). Perhaps the speed won’t be as nice as we thought it would be, but Rasmus had legitimate full-season ISOs over .200 in the minor leagues, so the power is for real. With a little better luck on batted balls (.284 BABIP), Rasmus has the chance to put together a nice power/speed year in the mold of (less speedy) Grady Sizemore. Best bet: improve.

Chris Coghlan: Because of his luck with the batted ball (.366 BABIP) and his probable position eligibility change, Coghlan won’t provide the same batting-average burst for your infield in 2010. It’s also hard to glean his true power level, as his ISOs have ranged from last year’s mediocrity (.139 ISO) to something more powerful (.200+ ISOs in the minors) over his career. He didn’t steal efficiently last year, either (61.5% success rate), but was better in the minors (80%), so he could improve there. Best bet: about the same, but with only outfield eligibility for now.

Everth Cabrera: This infielder is fast (7.9 speed score) and has a limp noodle bat (.106 ISO) – that much we know. A player like this is useful when he can pair that combination with a strong batting average, which is the largest question in regards to the diminutive (5’10”, 176 lbs) former Rule-5 shortstop. His BABIP doesn’t point to a bounceback (.328), and his meager contact rate (81.9%) doesn’t point to a great batting average either. Best bet: about the same.

Alcides Escobar: Another speedy infielder, Escobar has some of the same skills, but a better contact rate (83.3%) and a history of better strikeout rates in the minor leagues than Cabrera (21% for Cabrera, 15.8% for Escobar). With sub-.100 ISOs in the minor leagues, Escobar won’t develop any power, but more help in the batting-average and stolen-base categories is a strong bet. Best bet: about the same, just more of it.

Dexter Fowler: Fowler showed the speed (27 stolen bases, 72.9% success) and some repeatable power (.141 ISO, .152 minor league ISO), but the thing that Fowler really needs to work on is his strikeout rate (26.8% in 2009). It’s a good thing that his minor league numbers (23.7%) seem to suggest he can cut the strikeouts. On the negative side, if the Rockies hold on to all of their outfielders, Fowler will have to fight for playing time. Best bet: about the same.

J.A. Happ: The luck stats are not kind to Happ. He stranded more runners than he should have (85.2%) and his BABIP was also not sustainable (.270). When those return to normal, his mediocre strikeout rate (6.69 K/9) won’t play as well. Perhaps he needs to throw his secondary pitches more because, had he qualified, he would have thrown his fastball ninth-most in the Majors last year (69.9%). Best bet: decline.

Randy Wells: It’s easy to root for the unheralded 27-year-old rookie, and some might get excited about his relatively neutral luck stats (.294 BABIP, 76% BABIP), but fundamentally, it’s important to retain your senses when it comes to a pitcher with a below-average strikeout rate (5.66 K/9). His good ground-ball rate (47.9%) might help explain his 3.88 FIP, but his xFIP (4.24) is a better predictor for his true ability. Best bet: decline.

Casey McGehee: Be suspicious. Be very suspicious. Not only did McGehee get a little lucky with the batted ball (.335 BABIP, .305 xBABIP), but he showed an ISO (.197) that was above and beyond the power he showed in the minor leagues (.130). Don’t pro-rate out that power in your projections next year, and don’t depend on the batting average to last. Best bet: decline.

Garrett Jones: Had he qualified, Jones’ 21.2% HR/FB percentage would have tied for eighth-best in the entire league (with Nelson Cruz) – this, despite a minor league ISO that was only okay (.192). Of course, Jones has been better more recently (.800+ OPS at his last three minor league stops), but you always have to be suspicious of older rookies – especially ones with a .327 BABIP and a career .258 batting average in the minor leagues. Best bet: decline.

American League

Brett Anderson: Perhaps because his ERA started with a four, many people didn’t notice how nice of a season this rookie had. He struck out 150 batters and paired that with only 45 walks in 175+ innings. He had a ground-ball rate more than 50%, and his FIP was 3.69 – all great numbers for a freshman. The even better news is that his strikeout rate, though okay in 2009 (7.70), has room for improvement when seen through the prism of his minor league strikeout rates (9.7). Make sure to take a look at his plus slider (+22.1 runs), because it’s a doozy. Best bet: improve.

Elvis Andrus: The Texas shortstop got more attention than his fellow rookie all-speed shortstops, and perhaps there is a reason for the excitement beyond the plus defense. His contact rate (87.3%) easily bested that of the shortstops in Milwaukee and San Diego, even if his ISO was equally weak (.106). With a reach rate (19.6%), strikeout rate (16%), and line-drive rate (21.9%) as reasonable as Andrus showed, it’s reasonable to think the speedster can add to his BABIP (.307) and improve his batting average next year. Best bet: improve.

Gordon Beckham: Beckham is already a solid player, as his walk rate (9.8%), strikeout rate (17.2%), and ISO (.190) can attest. If he can up his contact rate (80.1%) and his line-drive rate (16.6%), then the consistency and overall improvement that the projections seem to expect will come. Even if you “only” pro-rate out his stats from last year to a full year, you are talking about a 20/10 infielder with a passable batting average. With the acquisition of Teahen, you may even be talking about a dark-horse top-three second baseman next year. Best bet: improve.

Matt Wieters: A debut that had Wieters put forth the run production of an average Major Leaguer (101 wRC+) was considered a poor effort after some projections had him starting his career with a bang. Perhaps his ISO (.124) or walk rate (7.4%) were the most disappointing aspects of his game given his minor league numbers in those categories (.233 and 14.7% respectively). His .362/.425/.511 September lends some credibility to the generally held idea that he will move his numbers towards his stellar minor league level (1.014 minor league OPS). Best bet: improve.

Rick Porcello: Though there was a lot of support for Porcello’s ROY candidacy, his season was actually a mixed bag. The good included his ground-ball rate (54.2%, fifth best among qualified starters) and walk rate (2.74 BB/9). Though that’s a good foundation, Porcello may need to start throwing his secondary offerings a little more (77.1% fastball usage, second-most in the league) in order to improve his below-average strikeout rate (4.69 K/9). The ERA may look worse next year as some of his luck stats regress (.287 BABIP, 75.5% LOB), but the overall package should improve. Best bet: improve, though possibly only marginally.

Andrew Bailey: This ROY had such a great season that he’s probably likely to decline. His luck stats will regress some, for sure (.234 BABIP, 84.9% LOB). But there’s so much good in his bag of tricks (9.83 K/9, 2.59 BB/9) that even with some regression he’ll be a solid closer in 2010. Look at how often batters reach (27.4%) and how seldom they make contact outside the zone (56.4%) and you’ll see he has nasty stuff. Best bet: more of the same, even with a little regression.

Travis Snider: The story of Travis Snider is the story of striking out. So far in his short career (356 PAs), Snider has struck out in a whopping 32.2% of his plate appearances and given his contact rate so far (71%), he doesn’t look to be poised to change his whiffing ways. Even with that said, his athleticism alone should allow Snider to best his .241 batting average last year. His power is still strong (.175) and inching its way to his minor league heights (.229), so he has that going for him. He has the tools and the pedigree to back up his projections. Best bet: improve, even if the batting average won’t be stellar.

Julio Borbon: Ron Washington already declared center field and leadoff Borbon’s to lose during the spring training, and Marlon Byrd’s signing with the Cubs helped cement Borbon’s new, expanded role with the Rangers. He stole 19 bags in just 179 plate appearances last year, and that speed will be the reason you take a shot of Borbon in 2010. He’ll also be a good bet for a .300 average given his speed (6.3 speed score) and ability to make contact (86.2%). Best bet: improve.

Nolan Reimold: Already sporting nice power (.187 ISO) and some speed to boot (8/10 stolen base attempts), Reimold is one of the best outfield sleepers for the upcoming year. With a HR/FB percentage like he sported (14.2%), all he needs to do is get the ball in the air a little more (37.3% FB) to start racking up the home runs. He consistently showed more power in the minor leagues, and with his nice walk (11.6%) and strikeout rates (21.5%), there’s a lot of reason for excitement about this young man’s future. Best bet: improve.

Jeff Niemann: The good news about Niemann is that last season was not ostensibly a result of his luck. His BABIP (.304) and LOB% (73.7%) were both reasonable, and his 4.07 FIP reflected those facts. But the bad news is that many of his stats were just slightly above average (walk rate, home run rate) or slightly below average (strikeout rate, ground-ball percentage). His curveball and change-up were better-than-neutral pitches, so perhaps he should use them more often (71.9% fastball usage). Best bet: more of the same, even if some of the traditional statistics look less exciting.

Top Five Off-Season Trades That Impact 2010

SS J.J. Hardy to the Minnesota Twins for OF Carlos Gomez

Hardy had a down year in 2009, hitting .229/.302/.357 and getting demoted to the minors at one point. But there’s hope for a rebound: his 2009 BABIP was about 40 points below his expected BABIP, which is based on his batted-ball profile. Hardy didn’t show as much pop as in years past with a .128 ISO (.166 career average). But there’s little reason to think the 27-year-old suddenly lost his power stroke. Minnesota’s new shortstop could be quite the bargain if he matches his 2007-2008 production.

Gomez possesses top-shelf speed, but he’s very much a work in progress. The 24-year-old outfielder showed modest improvement in his plate discipline in 2009, increasing his walk rate from 4.2 to 6.5%. However, he hasn’t been able to handle big league heat: Gomez has been -1.33 runs below average against fastballs during his short career. That has led to lots of weak contact, as Gomez popped the ball up nearly 20% of the time in 2009. He’s raw on the bases, too. After swiping 33 bags in 44 attempts in 2008 (75% success rate), Gomez stole just 14 bases in 21 attempts in 2009 (67%).

Hardy’s departure in Milwaukee opens the door for top shortstop prospect Alcides Escobar. The wiry Escobar is a burner, having swiped 42 bases in 52 tries at Triple-A. His bat has shown signs of life recently, though he’s a free swinger who doesn’t project to add much extra-base punch. Speaking of free swingers, Gomez’ departure from Minnesota gives former star prospect Delmon Young a little more rope, with Denard Span shifting to center field. Of course, Young might just hang himself that with that rope if his strike zone remains the size of Lake Superior.

RHP Javier Vazquez and LHP Boone Logan to the Yankees for OF Melky Cabrera, LHP Mike Dunn and RHP Arodys Vizcaino

The well-traveled Vazquez won’t replicate his 2009 production in the Bronx, as the fly-ball-oriented starter is headed from an NL park that depresses home runs to an AL venue that inflated tater-production in its inaugural season. That being said, Vazquez should still be high on your draft board. Over the past three seasons, the righty has the fourth-best K/BB ratio among starters (4.2), with a top-10 WHIP (1.15) and a top-20 FIP (3.74), as well. Vazquez is as durable as they come, too: he topped the 200-inning mark every season from 2000 to 2009, save for his 2004 campaign with the Yankees. As a bonus, he’ll be backed by the most potent offense in the game. Expect a high-3.00 ERA with a great WHIP.

Cabrera isn’t an exciting fantasy option, but the 25-year-old switch-hitter did manage a decent .274/.336/.416 line in 2009. He reversed a three-year decline in his walk rate, and posted the best ISO (.142) of his career. Melky’s no speed demon, but he did nab 10 bases in 12 tries. The question is: can he do more? Cabrera had a career .296/.349/.420 line in the minors, with a mild .124 ISO. He makes a lot of contact and isn’t punch-less, but he will have hit the ball with more authority to be relevant outside of NL-only leagues.

LHP Cliff Lee to the Seattle Mariners; RHP Roy Halladay, RHP Phillippe Aumont, RHP J.C. Ramirez and OF Tyson Gillies to the Phillies; RHP Kyle Drabek, C Travis d’Arnaud and OF Michael Taylor to the Blue Jays (Toronto later traded Taylor to the Athletics for 3B/1B Brett Wallace)

Over the past two years, Lee has established himself as a top-five starting pitcher. From 2008 to 2009, the lefty has the third-best FIP and K/BB ratio among starters, with the 10th-best WHIP. Now, Lee will be pitching in the best possible spot for a southpaw pitcher with fly-ball tendencies. Safeco Field has been brutal to right-handed power hitters, and has decreased home runs by 7% compared to a neutral ball park since 2007. Even better, Lee will be backed by perhaps the best defensive unit in the big leagues.

Halladay, meanwhile, is just about the safest bet among all pitchers. Roy’s K rate has increased four years straight, climbing from 5.4 K/9 in 2006 to 7.8 in 2009. The whiffs have cut into his ground-ball rate (from 61% in 2006 to 50% in 2009), but Halladay still burns plenty of worms. The 6’6’’ righty will be moving to a park that has inflated home runs by 14% over the past three years, so the grounder rate bears watching. But it’s easy to envision Halladay mowing down NL lineups and adding another Cy Young to his trophy case.

Wallace’s lumber is nearly big league ready – the lefty batter works the count well and has above-average-power potential. He’ll be more valuable if he can stick at third base, but they don’t call him “The Walrus” for nothing. Wallace will likely shift to first base at some point. Drabek, whose low-90s heat and power curve punched out 150 hitters in 158 innings between High-A and Double-A, could be a top-of-the-rotation arm. Aumont, a 6’7’’ righty with a sizzling fastball, looks like a closer-in-waiting if he improves his control and stays healthy. A hulking right-handed batter, Taylor has an intriguing combination of plus power (.229 ISO between Double-A and Triple-A) and deceptive athleticism (21 combined steals).

OF Curtis Granderson to the Yankees; RHP Max Scherzer, LHP Daniel Schlereth, LHP Mike Dunn and OF Austin Jackson to the Tigers; RHP Edwin Jackson and RHP Ian Kennedy to the Diamondbacks

Granderson’s .249/.327/.453 line in 2009 looks middling, but he’s a great bounceback candidate. His walk, strikeout and ISO figures were similar to 2008, when he hit .280/.365/.494. What changed? Granderson’s BABIP fell to .276, compared to his career .323 average. The lefty batter does scuffle against same-handed pitching (career .614 OPS vs. lefties), but he’s a good bet to go 30/20 again in 2010.

Scherzer’s first full year in the rotation was a rousing success, with a 9.2 K/9 rate and a 3.87 FIP. His blistering fastball, sharp slider and hard change-up led to a 77% contact rate, a top-15 mark among starters. About the only thing that can derail Scherzer is health; he has a troubling history of shoulder ailments.

Schlereth, a lefty reliever with a power fastball/breaking ball combo, could soon become Detroit’s closer. He’ll need to sharpen his control, though. Austin Jackson has a well-rounded skill set, though none of his tools stick out. He stole 24 bases in 28 tries in Triple-A last year. However, Jackson’s plate discipline has declined with each promotion, and his power is average.

Edwin Jackson made a good deal of progress in 2009, raising his K/BB ratio from 1.4 to 2.3 and lowering his FIP from 4.88 to 4.28. The former Dodgers prospect has a great slider (+1.89 runs per 100 pitches in 2009), but his fastball remains a batting practice pitch (-0.41 runs/100). Getting a better handle on his heater would allow Jackson to improve upon his poor 54% rate of first-pitch strikes. Jackson is good, but his 3.62 ERA might make him overvalued on draft day.

A former USC star with a career 2.69 FIP in the minors, Kennedy has yet to taste success in the Majors. His stuff (high-80s fastball, plus change-up, decent slider and curve) isn’t as good as his numbers would suggest, though the D-Backs still have high hopes for the 25-year-old. Kennedy’s 2009 season was derailed by surgery to remove an aneurysm in his right armpit. However, he did help his stock with a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League.

RHP Brandon Morrow to the Blue Jays for RHP Brandon League and OF Johermyn Chavez

Morrow was handled terribly by Seattle’s previous regime. The fifth overall pick in the 2006 draft was shoved into the M’s bullpen in 2007, instead of being given time to develop his secondary pitches and build stamina as a starter in the minors. After two more years of bouncing between starting and relieving, Morrow is now 25 and pitches like a live-armed Low-A hurler. His talent is obvious, as the righty has punched out 9.3 hitters per nine innings in the Majors. Unfortunately, his control (5.8 BB/9) is abysmal. Morrow’s mid-90s fastball (+0.5 runs per 100 pitches thrown) and occasional mid-80s change-up (+0.2) have been effective, but his mid-80s slider (-0.5) often misses. He’s a project, but Morrow could provide value as either a starter or a closer.

League is fresh off his best season, having posted a 3.58 FIP out of the bullpen. The 27-year-old right-hander struck out 9.2 batters per nine frames, well above his career 6.9 average. He did so by trading some mid-90s sinkers for mid-80s change-ups. League’s change-up was worth +2.7 runs per 100 pitches, which helped him lower his contact rate from 82% to 71%. He still induced plenty of grounders, with a 56% ground-ball rate. There has been some rumbling that League could get some starts with his new team, but he has never started in the Majors and last took regular turns in a rotation at High-A in 2003.

Closing it Out

The closer is the strangest fantasy position. Closers provide some value with their (usually) great ERA and WHIP, as well as high strikeouts-per-inning numbers, but because they pitch maybe a third of the number of innings of a starter, this impact is hardly noticed on a fantasy squad. Instead, the lion’s share of their value is from saves. Saves, in traditional fantasy baseball, carry the same weight as any other category, but at any time just 30 pitchers – the closers – will get the vast majority of those precious commodities. Those closers will change over the course of the season – due to injuries, trades, or ineffectiveness – and when this happens players lose or gain almost all of their value.

Because closers get almost all of their value from saves, even if they post great ratios and strikeout numbers, the best fantasy closers are the ones who have the best likelihood of maintaining that role for the whole season. This likelihood depends on a number of factors: his skill, his durability, and his reputation weighted against how fast his manager will replace him, which, in turn, depends on the quality of his replacement.

Here, I assess the probable closers based on the above factors. Instead of a strict ranking, I break them up into three groups: the best nine closers, which I then slice into two sub-groups; a large middling group, from which I highlight a handful of closers; and the four team-closing situations that I see as the worst.

The Top Closers

Tier 1: Jonathan Broxton, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon, and Mariano Rivera

These guys are undisputedly the class of the closer crop: none has ever posted an ERA above 3.15 in a full year of closing. All four have been very healthy over the past couple of years and have the closer’s roll locked down as tightly as possible. It is hard to argue for any one of these guys over the others. Broxton will probably give you the most strikeouts – his 13.5 K/9 in 2009 was the highest by any pitcher since Brad Lidge in 2004. On the other hand, Papelbon’s performance was down a little last year by giving up more walks and fly balls than normal. But all of these guys should provide at least 30 saves and have a shot 40 or more.

Tier 2: Jokiam Soria, Heath Bell, Huston Street, Brian Wilson, and Andrew Bailey

Outside of the Tier 1 closers, these are the guys I would be most confident in holding the closer’s job for all of 2010. Soria and Bell are the class of the group: outside of Tier 1, they have the best three-year average FIPs amongst relief pitchers. They play for small-market teams that probably won’t win a ton of games in 2010, but still should provide the opportunity for a good number of saves (thanks to playing in a lot of close games). The only concern is that either pitcher could get traded as their teams continue to rebuild, but even if one is traded, he will, most likely, retain his closing role.

Street and Wilson also have a number of years of very good performance behind them, and each has a firm hold on the closing duties for their NL West teams. Street is an extreme fly-ball pitcher in Colorado, which is a slight concern, but his strikeout and walk numbers are solid. Wilson walks more batters than any closer mentioned so far, but he gets enough strikeouts and ground balls to compensate.

Finally, Bailey does not have as long of a track record as the rest of this group and is definitely due for some regression (his ERA of 1.84 was in spite of a xFIP of 3.25, because of a lucky .234 BABIP and a 5.6% HR/FB), so I think he is right on the boundary of the top closers and the middling groups. Still, his youth, the patience of the A’s management with brief periods of poor performance, and underlying skills (an xFIP of 3.25 is still quite good) pushed him over as the last member of the top-closers group.

The Middle Tier

I put the majority of closers in the not the best, but not the worst group. Instead of explicitly ranking all closers in this group I will highlight two groups: one I think will be undervalued in some leagues and the other that I would be wary of drafting.

Potentially Undervalued: Rafael Soriano, Mike Gonzalez, and Frank Francisco

Soriano is a very good pitcher, posting ERAs of 3.00 or less in every year since 2006. But he has done so quietly and even last year shared closing duties with Mike Gonzalez. Now with the Rays, though, he should get almost all save opportunities to start the season. Gonzalez is a solid reliever with a career ERA of 2.57. He will start the year first in line for saves for the Orioles, his new organization. Both of these guys have a history of great numbers, but have never really had the starting closer’s job as firmly as they do now. This could make them undervalued.

Frank Francisco is also a solid reliever with xFIPs of 3.34 and 3.53 the last two years. He should have a solid shot at 30 or more saves for the Rangers, but he also tends to fly somewhat under the radar.

Guys I would be wary of: Francisco Rodriguez, Brian Fuentes, Ryan Franklin, and David Aardsma

Absent from my best closers list are Rodriguez and Fuentes. Both of these guys have a history of posting large numbers of saves for big-market teams, but each pitcher has had very poor performances as of late. Fuentes has only once had a FIP under 3.00, and in two of the last three years, he had a FIP over 4.00. Last year, his strikeouts fell to a career worst 7.53 K/9, while he still gives up a lot of walks (3.9 BB/9) and does not get many ground balls (36%). Rodriguez’ strikeout rate has fallen every year since 2004, while his walk rate last year was a career high 5.00 BB/9. Both of these guys could rebound in 2010, and maybe they are better pitchers than their 4.00+ FIPs of 2009 would suggest. With that said, they could very well keep the end-game jobs on their teams based on their history. Still, I would be wary of both of these guys, as they will be overvalued in many drafts.

Franklin and Aardsma were the beneficiaries of some serious luck in 2009. Franklin had an ERA of 1.92, but an xFIP of 4.27 (thanks to a BABIP of .269 and a HR/FB of 3%), while Aardsma had an ERA of 2.25 versus a FIP of 4.12 (BABIP of .271 and a HR/FB of 4%). They are both okay closers, but don’t expect – or pay for – an ERA below 2.50 from either of these guys in 2010.

The Bottom Group

Finally, we have the bottom group of closers and the team closing situations that include the worst closers and poor late-game options. These closers are most likely to lose their closing jobs due to ineffectiveness. To be clear, these are not bad pitchers, but bad when compared to their peer group of other closers.

Guys I would avoid: Brandon Lyon/Matt Lindstrom, Joel Zumaya/Ryan Perry/Daniel Schlereth, Leo Nunez, Chad Qualls/Juan Gutierrez

Nunez is not a particularly good pitcher; he has a career ERA of 4.66, which is in line with his xFIP of 4.79. He had an ERA under 3.00 in 2008, but that was the result of a lucky 3% HR/FB. In every other year his ERA has been above 3.90.

Lindstrom and Lyon are the most likely candidates for the Astros’ closer’s job: both have career xFIPs above 4.00. Either pitcher could very easily have an ineffective month, then blow some saves and lose his job.

For the Tigers, Zumaya, Perry, and Schlereth will compete for the job. All three get tons of strikeouts, but each also gives up too many walks. Even the one who emerges from spring training with the job will be far from a lock to hold it for the season.

In Arizona, Qualls is a solid pitcher, having had two straight years with xFIPs under 3.00 on the strength of his low-walk, high-ground-ball ways. However, he had serious knee surgery in September and will not be at full strength for spring training. Gutierrez received Qualls’ save opportunities after the latter’s surgery, so the younger pitcher figures to be the other option going into spring training. Gutierrez is not a great pitcher for a closer, thanks to a career xFIP of 4.22. The combination of a big health question mark in Qualls and relatively poor expected performance from Gutierrez makes this a dangerous closing situation.

Impactful Prospects for 2010

Not every season goes perfectly as planned and, at some point or another, teams will need to dip into their farm system for help at the big league level. Or some clubs may opt to start the season with a highly touted prospect in the lineup or rotation. Below, you can find prospects to know from each organization that have a good chance of making an impact at the Major League level in 2010 – and at the fantasy level, too. Keep this list handy as the season progresses…

Arizona Diamondbacks- 1B Brandon Allen

Why? Allen thrived in Triple-A Reno after a mid-season trade from the White Sox. The hulking 6’2’’ and 235-pound slugger hit .324/.413/.641 with 12 home runs in 145 at-bats with Reno after the trade. In a system short on talent in the upper levels of the system, Allen will be given an opportunity to conquer the starting job at first base this spring after he was extremely overmatched in his Major League debut (.288 wOBA). In 104 big league at-bats, Allen struck out in 38.5% of them. He’ll have to improve upon this to make a positive impact in 2010, especially now that the organization has signed free agent Adam LaRoche to a one-year deal. An injury to LaRoche (or, at the very least, a mid-season trade) may now be Allen’s best chance for playing time in 2010.

Atlanta Braves- OF Jason Heyward

Why? Heyward is the Braves’ top prospect and one of the best in baseball. The five-tool player ripped through High-A and Double-A last year and finished the year with a three-game cameo in Triple-A. A minor injury cut his time short in the Arizona Fall League, but with the departure of the aging and overrated Garrett Anderson, the Braves could be in need of Heyward’s services soon. He has an outside shot at being an opening day outfielder for Atlanta, but expect him to get a little Triple-A seasoning first. The 20-year-old should make a big impact soon.

Baltimore Orioles- LHP Brian Matusz

Why? Matusz breezed through the Orioles’ minor league system in his first full season with the organization. The former first-round pick has impeccable command of his pitches and knows how to pitch. He’s expected to start the season in the big league rotation after he posted a 4.08 FIP in 43 big league innings to finish up last year. He’s got some Major League experience and this will suit him well in 2010; he just managed to maintain his rookie eligibility. He’ll be a key cog in Baltimore’s rotation for years to come and could be a solid force on your team in 2010.

Boston Red Sox- OF Josh Reddick

Why? This one’s tough and it’s very possible Reddick has a minimal fantasy impact in 2010. Someone had to be chosen and most of the Red Sox’ top talent on the farm is quite young and at least a full season away from potential Major League playing time. Reddick strung together good numbers in Double-A (.382 wOBA in 63 games) and was overmatched in his big league debut and in 18 Triple-A games. He figures to spend much of his season in Pawtucket. He could be forced into big league playing time if injuries haunt the creaky J.D. Drew, nor is Jeremy Hermida a sure bet to stay on the field if he receives consistent playing time for some reason. Mike Cameron isn’t young anymore and some injuries could push Reddick and his plus power into the big league picture. But don’t bank on Reddick by any means.

Chicago White Sox- RHP Daniel Hudson

Why? Hudson blazed through the White Sox system and played for five different teams in 2009 and finished the year with the big league club. Hudson projects as a mid-rotation starter and his bread-and-butter pitch is his sinking fastball. He’ll only provide fantasy value in 2010 if he’s given the opportunity to start. He’ll have to beat out Freddy Garcia for the fifth rotation spot but even if he doesn’t, he’s next in line for starts if anyone suffers an injury.

Chicago Cubs- RHP Jay Jackson

Why? Like Boston, the Cubs system also lacks upper-level talent close to the big leagues. This makes the pick quite tough but if there’s a guy to keep a close eye on, it’s Jackson. The power arm displayed good peripherals in the minors last year. He needs to work on command, as evidenced by his 4.25 BB/9 rate in 16 Double-A starts. Jackson figures to start the year in Triple-A Iowa’s rotation and could see big league action if Randy Wells has a lackluster sophomore campaign or if injuries strike the Cubs starting rotation.

Cincinnati Reds- OF Chris Heisey

Why? Heisey had impressive stints in Double-A and Triple-A last year. He’s knocking on the big league door and with the departure of Jonny Gomes he should find some big league time in 2010. Heisey has been coined a, “cheap five-tool player” because he can do a little bit of everything. He may not open the season with the Reds and will likely have to earn playing time over Chris Dickerson and Wladimir Balentien, among others. Each of those players have limited and flawed skill sets so don’t be surprised if Heisey comes to the rescue at some point next season in Cincinnati.

Cleveland Indians- C Carlos Santana

Why? Santana assaulted Double-A pitchers in his first full season at the level. He had a .418 wOBA in 130 games. Santana will start the year in Triple-A behind Mike Redmond, Lou Marson, and Wyatt Toregas on the temporary depth chart. Scouts believe Santana’s impact bat is ready for the Majors but would like to see him improve his defense behind the plate first. Santana should arrive in Cleveland at some point next year and, if Marson struggles, it should happen sooner. Santana could make a lot of noise if given the opportunity. The bat is special.

Colorado Rockies- 2B/OF Eric Young

Why? Young is ready for the Majors after a successful Triple-A showing. In 119 games, he posted a .381 wOBA and swiped 58 bases. After getting his feet wet late in Colorado last year, he’ll fight incumbent Clint Barmes for time at second base in 2010. If he’s permitted to play, he could help your team in the batting-average and stolen-base departments. He won’t hit for much power but he also figures to become eligible in the outfield at some point in the season, too.

Detroit Tigers- 2B Scott Sizemore

Why? Sizemore played well in the upper levels of the Tigers system in 2009 and looks to be ready for the big leagues. With Placido Polanco’s departure to the Phillies, the door appears to be open for Sizemore to the starting second base job. He looks like an above-average second baseman in the future, but he suffered an ugly ankle injury in the Arizona Fall League. He should be ready for spring training, but it’ll be best to monitor his health as the season approaches. He could be a solid contributor if he’s healthy and claims the starting job.

Florida Marlins- 1B Gaby Sanchez

Why? After failing to secure the starting job at first base last year this may finally be Sanchez’ year. The 26-year-old had a .378 wOBA in Triple-A last year and played in 21 big league games towards the end of the season. The first-base job appears to be his for the taking and Sanchez’ blend of contact, raw power, and on-base abilities make for an intriguing package.

Houston Astros- RHP Sammy Gervacio

Why? Gervacio made his big league debut in ‘09 and overpowered hitters. He had a 2.62 FIP in 21 innings and a 10.71 strikeout-per-nine rate. He’ll likely begin the season in the Astros’ bullpen and may have the opportunity to close games. Recent acquisitions Brandon Lyon and Matt Lindstrom have first dibs on the closing job, but if the club realizes that Gervacio is the better option – or once Lyon and/or Lindstron implode – Gervacio could become very valuable in all fantasy formats.

Kansas City Royals- 1B Kila Kaaihue

Why? Kaaihue was trapped in Triple-A last year despite a breakout 2008 season. Mike Jacobs wilted with the big league team and was released this offseason. Kaaihue will be 26 years old at the outset of the season and he may finally be awarded a big league starting opportunity. He had a .368 wOBA in Triple-A last season and could prove to be quite valuable if he discovers his 2008 power levels, where he had 38 homers between three stops. Kaaihue slugged only 17 homers last year (.181 ISO) but is a walk machine (18.8% walk rate). He’s a nice sleeper entering 2010.

Los Angeles Angels- IF Brandon Wood

Why? Technically, Wood isn’t a prospect and shouldn’t be eligible for this list. But I’ll bend the rules a little here with such limited options at the upper levels of the Angels farm system. With Chone Figgins signing with the Mariners, Wood may be allowed the opportunity to start in the infield, despite floundering in each taste of the big leagues he’s had over the past three seasons. Wood has plus power and can mash homers at the expense of big strikeout numbers. Is this the year that some of his abilities finally transfer from Triple-A to Los Angeles?

Los Angeles Dodgers- RHP John Ely

Why? The cash-strapped Dodgers need some help at the back end of their rotation, and it doesn’t appear that they’ll make a big move to improve their rotation with limited financial resources. The organization may take a flier on a cheap veteran if the opportunity presents itself, but don’t be surprised if Ely is thrust into the starting rotation during the season. He has plus command and a plus-plus change-up that serves as his outpitch. However, he lacks a consistent third offering. The environment in Dodger stadium can only help him.

Milwaukee Brewers- SS Alcides Escobar

Why? The Brewers paved the way for Escobar this past winter by dealing former shortstop J.J. Hardy to the Twins. Escobar hit .304 in 125 at-bats to wrap up 2009 with Milwaukee, but he only had a .311 wOBA. He doesn’t have much home-run power nor does he exhibit good plate discipline. The plus defender wreaks havoc on the bases. He stole 42 bags last year in Triple-A and will be a valuable source of steals in all fantasy formats in 2010. Escobar should be a solid source of batting average accompanied with great stolen base numbers next season.

Minnesota Twins- 3B Danny Valencia

Why? Valencia handled Double-A very well (.380 wOBA) in 57 games, which earned him a promotion to Triple-A. There he held his own with a .326 wOBA but had to go through an adjustment period over 71 games. Valencia still hit .286 in Triple-A but saw his walk rate go from 12.4% in Double-A to a meager 2.9% after the promotion. He may need some more seasoning in the minors, but Valencia has a shot at cracking the Twins’ opening day roster with the departure of former third baseman Joe Crede. Valencia will have to battle Brendan Harris for playing time at third, but, with Harris coming off a poor year, the Twins may opt to give the newer blood a shot.

New York Mets- OF Fernando Martinez

Why? Martinez’s raw talent and tools are just overwhelming. Some may forget that he’s still just 21 years old despite making his Major League debut last year before injuries sidelined him. Martinez finally started hitting for some power to start 2009 in Triple-A (.382 wOBA with a .540 slugging percentage in 45 games) before falling on his face (.240 wOBA) in 29 big league games. He’s healthy now and set to start the year in Triple-A, but he will be banging on the Mets’ door. If the Jeff Francoeur rollercoaster starts hitting too many lows, Martinez should get his shot with the Mets in the middle of the season, and he may be ready to arrive in a big way.

New York Yankees- C Jesus Montero

Why? The Yankees are so stacked at the big league level that it’s plausible the organization will not need to rely on any rookies in 2010. A fractured middle finger robbed Montero of the last six weeks of his season, but he downright assaulted High-A (.446 wOBA) and Double-A (.406 wOBA) pitching in 2009. Montero’s defense is pretty brutal behind the plate, so he doesn’t have the best odds of sticking at the position and Jorge Posada isn’t going anywhere soon. Montero won’t supplant Mark Teixeira at first, but the 20-year-old Montero’s bat is ready for The Show. He could find himself at DH for the Yankees at some point next year if the injury-prone Nick Johnson gets hurt. If this happens, you can expect production from Montero; also, keep in mind he’s valuable trade bait for the Yankees if a need arises for the team at the big league level. Any team acquiring him would likely want to see how he can mash in the Majors right now.

Oakland Athletics- 1B Chris Carter

Why? Carter hit for an ungodly .450 wOBA in 125 Double-A games last year, which earned him a promotion to Triple-A, where he spent 13 games. Carter will likely start 2010 back in Triple-A but he’s going to push for the big league first-base job soon. If Carter continues his power hitting ways in Triple-A, the team may opt for him over the lesser-power-hitting Daric Barton. Carter’s .406 BABIP in Double-A won’t translate to the upper levels and Majors but his plus-plus power is some of the best in the minors. He’ll hit for big power and strike out a lot.

Philadelphia Phillies- LHP Antonio Bastardo

Why? The Phillies are like the Yankees in that they won’t need to rely on any rookies in 2010. The farm system has changed a lot with the Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay trades and uber-prospect Dominic Brown doesn’t figure to get any big league time in 2010. Bastardo made five starts for the Phillies before the Cliff Lee acquisition and he did well in Double-A and Triple-A. He appears ready for Major League action and it may first come in the bullpen where he’d offer little-to-no fantasy value. However, Bastardo may get a shot at the last rotation spot if injuries arise after the J.A. Happ/Jamie Moyer fifth starter situation is settled. But Bastardo’s a long shot to make any significant impact in 2010.

Pittsburgh Pirates- LHP Brad Lincoln

Why? With superior prospects Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata destined for more Triple-A seasoning and no immediate opening with the big league squad, Lincoln figures to have the best chance to play in the big leagues. He may have to wait for an opportunity to arise in the Major League rotation, but Kevin Hart might be destined for the bullpen and Daniel McCutchen may not hold down the fifth rotation slot for very long. Lincoln’s Double-A performance (2.96 FIP in 13 starts) was impressive and he looked solid in Triple-A, as well (3.85 FIP in 12 starts). Lincoln exhibited good peripherals in Triple-A and his .332 BABIP should be due for some regression while his 62.8% LOB rate should increase, thus helping his ERA. If the former first-rounder performs well in Indianapolis and a need arises for him in the Pirates rotation, he has the makings of a pleasant surprise to fantasy owners.

San Diego Padres- OF Chad Huffman

Why? The Padres system doesn’t have much talent ready for the big leagues and Huffman is going to have trouble cracking many top-10 prospect lists. He’s likely maxed out and he’ll be 25 years old this season, but he’s had success at every minor league level in the Padres system. Last season with Triple-A Portland, he had a .367 wOBA and 20 home runs. He may crack the opening day roster as a fourth or fifth outfielder but could receive playing time if one of the Padres’ starters goes down with an injury. In that situation he may surprise and be a solid contributor, as he’s been throughout the entire Friars’ farm system.

San Francisco Giants- C Buster Posey

Why? Posey was the Giants’ starting catcher prior to the re-acquisition of Bengie Molina, which allows Posey more time in Triple-A (likely whether he needs it or not). Posey destroyed pitching in Double-A (.433 wOBA) and Triple-A (.390 wOBA) in ‘09. He also received 17 big league at-bats in September and some were disappointed that he did not take more at-bats from Molina during a tight play-off run. Posey projects to hit for a high batting average, as well as average to above-average power at the big league level, and if granted regular playing time in 2010, he could help all fantasy players in all formats.

Seattle Mariners- OF Michael Saunders

Why? Saunders’ path to the big leagues got a little murkier with the Mariners’ acquisition of Milton Bradley, but the former prospect no longer has anything left to prove in Triple-A, where he had a .400 wOBA last season. Saunders didn’t do much (.244 wOBA) with 122 big league at-bats and he will likely start 2010 back in Triple-A, where he should just continue to do what he did last year. Saunders should be one of the first in line for a call to the big leagues if a regular outfielder suffers an injury, or if the Mariners organization decides it needs more punch from the DH slot, which figures to be shared by the elderly Ken Griffey Jr. and Bill Hall. The 2010 season may be the time that Saunders puts it together at the MLB level.

St. Louis Cardinals- 3B David Freese

Why? Freese will be 27 years old in 2010 and he’ll have a big opportunity to win the starting job at third base for the Cardinals in the spring. He’ll need to put his recent drinking issues behind himself, though. He overcame a foot injury in 2009 and had a .388 wOBA in 200 Triple-A at-bats. He also had a .351 wOBA in 31 big league at-bats. This could be the year that he’s a solid, and well-rounded, contributor at the big league level.

Tampa Bay Rays- RHP Wade Davis

Why? This was a tough pick because the Rays club has a number of potential big league contributors that will be loitering around in Triple-A. But after a fine Major League debut (2.90 FIP in six starts), Davis should have first dibs on opening the season with Tampa’s rotation. He had strong peripherals in Triple-A and during his six start trial with Tampa Bay. Davis has a good chance at 10-15 wins next season with an ERA south of 4.00. As such, he looks like a very solid rookie option in all fantasy formats in 2010.

Texas Rangers- RHP Neftali Feliz

Why? Feliz has a downright electric arm and he cruised through the Rangers’ minor league system. Some believe he’ll be an ace in the Majors soon, and last year he had a 2.48 FIP in 31 relief innings. Feliz is expected to be shifted back to the starting role in 2010, and he’s going to play a big role in determining the Rangers’ playoff odds in the American League West. The Rangers will closely monitor his innings count, but he has the stuff to post a very impressive season. He’ll be an AL Rookie of The Year contender.

Toronto Blue Jays- 3B Brett Wallace

Why? Wallace has been traded twice over the past year, but it looks like he’ll be a Blue Jay for a while. Wallace has one of the best pure bats in the minors and he appears to be ready for big league action after he handled Triple-A well in the Cardinals (.340 wOBA) and Athletics (.372 wOBA) organizations. He has an unusual body type and isn’t praised for his defense at the hot corner, which may move him to first base, but his bat should play there. The Jays organization is shopping incumbent first baseman Lyle Overbay, and the door may open soon for Wallace at the big league level. When it does, he should become a solid contributor almost immediately.

Washington Nationals- RHP Stephen Strasburg

Why? Perhaps the question should be why not? Strasburg’s repertoire is phenomenal and he’s got ace and multiple Cy Young award-winner written all over him. After setting an amateur signing bonus record, Strasburg is destined towards big things in Washington, and people are looking at him as the franchise’s savior. After two 59-win seasons, Nationals fans need something big to cheer about and the dynamic Strasburg is going to be it. He will be allowed to compete for a rotation spot this spring, but it’s likely that Washington eases him into pro ball with as assignment to the upper-minors to start 2010. But it’s just a matter of time before he’s deemed big league ready and the pressure will be on Washington to call him up if he mows down minor league hitters as expected. He may be worth a late-round draft pick to stash on your bench because when Strasburg arrives, he’s going to arrive in a big, big way that you don’t want to miss.

Fringe Benefits (Basic Questions Remix)

In the 1991 edition of his Baseball Book, Sabermetric Baby Daddy Bill James includes a long section called Basic Questions. Here’s how he introduces it:

What I’ve tried to do… is talk about, write about, as many of the things which are on the minds of the average baseball fan as I can. For each player, I tried to find the basic questions about each major league player. The basic questions about Daryl Strawberry: How’s he going to do in Los Angeles? How will he hit in Dodger Stadium? How much will his loss hurt the Mets? How much will he help LA? What are his career totals going to be? Is he going to hit 500 home runs in his career? 600? How many?

He then proceeds, for 180 giant, three-columned pages, to do just that. The product is excellent, vintage James, whether he’s warning us to appreciate Eric Davis, almost pinky-swearing us that Lance Dickson will be a star (he pitched 14 innings in the majors), or referring to Luis Encarnacion of Kansas City as “the Rodney Dangerfield of the Royals’ organization.”

There are also kinda mean entries, such as this, in re Jerry Kutzler of the White Sox:

Who is he?

Right-handed starting pitcher, pitched well for Tampa in 1988. I don’t expect him to be a major league starting pitcher, ever.

Ever. Ouch.

And then there’s this in re Baltimore’s Jose Mesa, which is just awesome:

Can he pitch in the major leagues?

Can a bear perform heart surgery? I guess you never know unless you give him a scalpel and stand back.

In what follows, I’ve stolen James’s Basic Questions format to look at some players on the periphery of baseballing relevance. Most of the players here would likely make decent fantasy plays given the opportunity, but that hasn’t been my only concern in composing this list. For example, I don’t look at some of the standard metrics. And I don’t even pretend to guess at something like pitcher wins. This might be a case of wanting my cake and eating it, too. But to that I say: why else would a person want cake besides for eating it? Cake is good for little else.

A couple notes before I begin. First, where James writes that he is attempting to address questions that the “average baseball fan” might have, I have attempted, in what follows, to anticipate and answer questions that a FanGraphs reader might have. Basically, what that means is I use some metrics (wOBA, wRC+, xFIP) that are used pretty commonly on FanGraphs. Also, it means that I take for granted that names like Garrett Jones and Matt Thornton – that is, players without much public exposure – are at least somewhat familiar.

Second point: While I’d guess that most fans share an intuitive understanding of “fringe,” let’s say, for the sake of clarity, that “fringe” players are those who:

(a) had something like a starting job but underperformed their probable skill levels pretty badly, or

(b) had something more like a part-time role but would probably play well in an expanded role, or

(c) are minor leaguers but, for one reason or another – age, draft pedigree, injury, failures at the Major League level – aren’t exactly what you’d call prospects.

For whatever reason, pitchers seem to skew younger among this category of player. I don’t know why that is, exactly, but were I forced, at gun-point, to hazard a guess, I’d say (a) why is this such an important question that you feel the need to threaten me with violence, and (b) maybe it’s because starters who fail are generally regulated to reliever status.

Finally, in a bow to the roto-minded, I’ve organized the players according to the standard fantasy roster: C, 1B, 2B, 3B, SS, OF, OF, OF, SP, SP, RP, RP, P, P, P. Here’s the result:

C: Brayan PENA, Kansas City

What sort of name is Brayan?

I’m sure I’m not qualified to answer that sort of question.

Okay, then, how about this one: Who the flip is Brayan Pena?

Last year, he was back-up to the back-up catcher in Kansas City.

That doesn’t really sound like much of a distinction.

No, but you have to remember that, in Kansas City, every day is Opposite Day. Pena has a career line-drive rate of 20.5%. He doesn’t strike out too much. He’d probably hit 10-12 homers with something like a regular job. He’d probably post a league-average wOBA. Around .335 or so, at least.

I don’t care what you say. What’s the word from CHONE and ZiPS?

Pretty good, actually. CHONE says .282/.326/.415. ZiPS says .281/.328/.413. Confucius say… nothing. Not about baseball, at least.

1B: Garrett JONES, Pittsburgh

The career minor leaguer who raked for Pittsburgh last year?


He played well, but how do I know that wasn’t luck?

He posted a wRC+ of 147 (.396 wOBA) in 358 plate appearances, and only his home-run rate (21.2% HR/FB) was really out of place relative to his minor league numbers. Cut that down to 15% and you still have an above-average hitter, with maybe a .350 wOBA. CHONE and ZiPS agree.

You put him at first base, but he played more games in right field last year.

You’re right. He played 39 games in right versus only 30 at first last year. But I had three outfielders I wanted to pick and no first basemen. The Pirates have the same flexibility with both Jeff Clement and Brandon Moss hanging round.

2B: Ryan ROBERTS, Arizona

Remind me again who he is.

The guy who took over at second in Arizona after Felipe Lopez was sent to Milwaukee.

How’d he play?

Actually, a little bit better than Lopez. All told, Roberts finished with a .348 wOBA, while Lopez posted a .341 during his time in Phoenix. Consider, too, that Lopez posted a significantly higher BABIP (.350 versus Roberts’ .321), and there’s reason to believe that Arizona played its cards right.

Will he start this year?

Entering the offseason, it seemed like maybe not. But then it seemed like, yes, maybe he would. But then Arizona signed Kelly Johnson. So, probably not, no. Not right away at least.

3B: Edwin ENCARNACION, Toronto

Are you serious? He hit like caca for Cincinnati and Toronto last year.

Or did he? The only thing that really changed was his BABIP, which checked in at .249. Relative to his career mark of .290, that’s pretty low. Relative to his line-drive rate of 17.5%, it’s also pretty low.

So say he comes back with a .290 or so BABIP. What then?

Probably a wOBA of .355 or .360. Probably 20-25 homers.

Okay, that’s fine. But isn’t he a kinda sucky infielder?

Almost assuredly, yes. He’s got an UZR/150 of -12.3 for his career at third base. If you’re the club that’s paying him, that’s not so great. From a fantasy perspective, though, it’s not really a problem. The closest thing to competition at third base is from new acquisition Brett Wallace. By all accounts, Wallace is an even worse third baseman.

SS: Khalil GREENE, Texas

Khalil Greene? Is this a preview for 2010 or for 2004 I’m reading?

So far as I know, 2010. If not, something has gone horribly awry.

But Greene was terrible last year.

Actually, not really. His strikeout rate (20.6%) was lower than it’s been for a while, his walk rate (8.1%) was as high as it’s been for a while, and his infield fly-ball rate (2.9%) was almost non-existent. The problem was that he had .217 BABIP. That’s real low. Normalize his numbers for something like a league-average BABIP, and he becomes a league-average hitter.

Why did he have so few plate appearances last year?

Well, the perception of him playing poorly, for one. And for two, he had problems with social anxiety disorder. Still, he came back from the latter and hit .345/.368/.618 in 57 rehab plate appearances at Triple-A – with only a .319 BABIP, which suggests that he was making excellent contact, as opposed to getting super lucky.

OF: Seth SMITH, Colorado

What’d he do last year, again?

Hit, field, and do everything else like a starting Major League outfielder: .383 wOBA, 16.2 UZR/150 in about 80 games in left field.

Sure that’s a high wOBA, but wOBA’s not park-adjusted, and Smith plays at Coors.

You’re right, it isn’t, but wRC+ is, and he posted a 129 wRC+, which compares very favorably to starting right-fielder Brad Hawpe’s 130 wRC+. When you consider that Hawpe is a legitimately awful fielder (-21.6 UZR/150 since 2004), then there’s barely a contest in terms of overall value.

Then why isn’t he a starter?

A couple reasons. For one, the Rockies have legitimate outfield depth. Besides Hawpe, Carlos Gonzalez, Dexter Fowler, and Ryan Spilborghs all makes legitimate claims to playing time. For two, well… I don’t know. Regardless, it’s a fact: if he’s anything like a starter in 2010, he’ll put up great numbers.

OF: Andruw JONES, Chicago (A.L.)

Surely he doesn’t play baseball anymore.

Actually, he does, although you’re excused for thinking as much. Three years ago, he was bad. Two years ago, he was really bad. Last year, though, he was actually kinda good as a DH for Texas, posting a 104 wRC+ despite a horrifically low .224 BABIP.

Alright, but look: he faced lefties almost exclusively. Wouldn’t he be exposed in a larger role?

Well, for one, he actually faced more righties than lefties (181 PAs, versus only 150 against LHPs). For two, Jones’s career platoon split (.256/.331/.485 versus righties, .261/.361/.499 v lefties) is almost exactly what you’d expect from any sort of right-handed batter.

Can he really still play the field?

He’s declined, for sure, but on account of his peak being so high, he’s probably still league-average in a corner. He does seem injury-prone, though, so maybe he’s best as a part-time fielder.

OF: Jody GERUT, Milwaukee

Describe him in three words.

Here they are: the disappearing man. Now here are some other ones: Gerut played well in 2003-04, declined afterwards, and left baseball… until 2008, when he hit .296/.351/.494 while playing half his games at Petco. Then, last year, he appeared to decline again, batting .230/.279/.376 in limited plate appearances between San Diego and Milwaukee.

Why’s he on this list then?

Like many of the guys here, he was the victim of bad luck. In this case, a .243 BABIP. Other than that, he has the profile of a league-average hitter.

Why’d Milwaukee acquire him just to bench him?

[Insert sound of crickets chirping.]

What are his chances of playing this year?

Cameron’s gone from Milwaukee, but Carlos Gomez has arrived. Signs point to Gomez starting. He’s worth 1.5 wins afield, which is probably the reason why, but Gerut is a better offensive player.

SP: Felipe PAULINO, Houston

I’m not one for old-timey metrics, but come on: dude was 3-11 with a 6.27 ERA.

Dude had 93 strikeouts versus only 37 walks in 97.2 innings last year. Dude had a 4.10 xFIP. Dude also finished second among starters (50+ IP) in his rate of swings and misses outside of the zone – something that correlates highly with strikeouts.

Oh. What happened, then?

Take your pick: .368 BABIP. 16.9% HR/FB. 67.6% LOB (versus a league average of 71.9%).

What’s his role for 2010?

He was slated as the fifth starter until the signing of Brett Myers. It’s hard to believe that Houston likes Brian Moehler more than Paulino.

P: Sean GALLAGHER, San Diego

What’s the difference between him and Chad Gaudin?

Gallagher has never had absurd facial hair. Not recently, at least.

Why am I getting them mixed up, then?

Because each of them, despite being pretty young, has played for Chicago (N.L.), Oakland, and San Diego. Gallagher was also sent to Oakland in the deal that sent Gaudin and Rich Harden to the Cubs.

What’s Gallagher gonna do in 2010?

Benefit immensely from Petco, for one. Gallagher’s posted a 35.8% groundball rate in 150 Major League innings. In Petco, that equals fewer home runs and lot of outs. CHONE and ZiPS agree, projecting ERAs of 3.97 and 3.98, respectively.

RP: Luke GREGERSON, San Diego

Remind me.

He pitched 75 nutso relief innings for San Diego last year, finishing with 93 strikeouts, only 31 walks, and only three home runs-allowed. That was good for a 3.11 xFIP.

You say “three home runs” like it’s a big deal, but he pitched in Petco.

Petco obviously helps – nor should a fantasy owner ever lose sight of that fact. But Gregerson has a good sinker, too. He had a 45.7% ground-ball rate in 2009. His minor league ground-ball rate was almost 60% even.

How does he get all the strikeouts?

A nasty slider. Among the 214 pitchers who threw at least 70 innings last year, only Mike Wuertz and Carlos Marmol threw the slider more often. And Gregerson finished second among relievers in terms of runs-saved-above-average on the slider.

RP: Brandon LEAGUE, Seattle

He’s been around for a while without really impressing. Why do you like him for 2010?

The best three things a pitcher can do are (a) strike hitters out, (b) not walk them, and (c) force hitters, in the event that they do make contact, to hit the ball on the ground. League does all those things well – better than most people in the Major Leagues, as his 2009 line testifies: 74.2 IP, 76 K, 21 BB, 55.7% GB.

Those are the best things a pitcher can do?

Well, I guess not. The best things are probably, like, give blood or live an authentic life or something like that.

That’s deep, yo.

Duly noted.

P: Billy BUCKNER, Arizona

Billy Buckner, huh? Do the editors of FanGraphs know that you drink heavily while writing these articles?

First of all, “heavily” is a subjective term. Second of all, Buckner posted a 3.95 xFIP. CHONE has him with a 4.58 ERA in 2010 through 167 innings.

What’s the deal with last year’s 6.40 ERA then?

Same thing as Felipe Paulino, except almost even worse: .347 BABIP, 16.7% HR/FB, and a spectacularly unlucky 63.2% LOB.

Oh, and why do you only cite CHONE above? Is it because ZiPS says he bites?

No, it’s because his ZiPS projection wasn’t released before printing. I swear.

P: Garrett MOCK, Washington

I’m suspicious. Guess why.

Probably because, over the last two years, Mock has gone back and forth – between levels and roles. Also, his traditional numbers (like his 3-10, 5.62 in 2009) have been kinda meh. Also, because you’ve barely ever heard of Garrett Mock.

That’s pretty good. So why’s he here?

Because, regardless of where he’s been or in what role, his peripherals have always been promising. In 2008, he had an xFIP of 3.90, mostly in relief. In 2009, it was 4.49, mostly as a starter. He gets strikeouts and ground balls. Ta-da!

What’ll he do in 2010?

He’s slated to begin the season in the rotation, probably as the fourth starter. As a fantasy player, he may not produce wins (see: Nationals, Washington), but he can do some things.

P: Matt THORNTON, Chicago (A.L.)

What’s his deal?


OMG, stop shouting.

Okay, but he’s really good. In 2008? BAM!: a 2.75 xFIP. In 2009? BAM!: 2.46 xFIP. In 2010?

Don’t say “BAM.” Please.

Fine, but you get the idea. Basically, he profiles like a left-handed and more svelte version of Heath Bell. He’d be a great closer.

Splitting Hairs on 2009’s Performances

Everyone has players that they think are strong performers in either the first or second half. Hank Blalock is a notorious first-half performer while Adam LaRoche has made a career out of heating up after the All-Star break. In 2009, Blalock had a .854 OPS in the first half compared to a .585 OPS in the second. LaRoche posted a .784 OPS before the All-Star break and .915 mark afterwards.

But neither of those players made the list of top-five extreme fantasy splits for 2009.

To figure out who the hot and cold fantasy performers were by half, I took the dollar values from the RotoTimes Player Rater at the All-Star break and compared them to the numbers that the players posted for the entire season. Hitters needed to have 150 at-bats in each half in order to qualify, while pitchers needed 50 innings (or be a closer) on both sides of the break to merit inclusion.

Here are the extreme first half hitters:

1. Jermaine Dye – First half: $20.73; Final: $6:36; Difference: $14:37

1st Half – .302-20-55-55-0

2nd Half – .179-7-26-23-0

2. Justin Morneau – First half: $26.68; Final: $13.87; Difference: $12.81

1st Half – .311-21-70-59-0

2nd Half – .201-9-30-26-0

3. Brandon Inge – First half: $14.80; Final: $2.58; Difference: $12.22

1st Half – .261-28-58-51-2

2nd Half – .186-6-26-20-0

4. Luke Scott – First half: $16.31; Final: $4.69; Difference: $11.62

1st Half – .305-18-51-39-0

2nd Half – .208-7-26-22-0

5. Brad Hawpe – First half: $21.02; Final: $11.40; Difference: $9.62

1st Half – .320-14-59-50-0

2nd Half – .240-9-27-32-1

Here are the extreme second half hitters:

1. Troy Tulowitzki – First half: $10.78; Final: $26.84; Difference: $16.06

1st Half – .254-16-37-49-11

2nd Half – .342-16-55-52-9

2. Ryan Howard – First half: $15.02; Final: $30.33; Difference: $15.31

1st Half – .257-22-67-53-4

2nd Half – .304-23-74-52-4

3. Chris Coghlan – First half: -$5.35; Final: $9.89; Difference: $15.24

1st Half – .245-2-15-30-4

2nd Half – .372-7-32-54-4

4. Matt Holliday – First half: $10.32; Final: $25.52; Difference: $15.20

1st Half – .276-8-43-42-10

2nd Half – .356-16-66-52-4

5. Jimmy Rollins – First half: $1.14; Final: $16.31; Difference: $15.17

1st Half – .229-7-34-51-16

2nd Half – .272-14-43-49-15

Here are the extreme first half pitchers:

1. Edwin Jackson – First half: $18.77; Final: $8.90; Difference: $9.87

1st Half – 7 W, 2.52 ERA, 97 Ks, 1.060 WHIP

2nd Half – 6 W, 5.07 ERA, 64 Ks, 1.527 WHIP

2. Jarrod Washburn – First half: $11.19; Final: $3.25; Difference: $7.94

1st Half – 6 W, 2.96 ERA, 72 Ks, 1.086 WHIP

2nd Half – 3 W, 5.23 ERA, 28 Ks, 1.366 WHIP

3. Ryan Franklin – First half: $21.51; Final: $14.25; Difference: $7.26

1st Half – 2 W, 21 SV, 0.79 ERA, 27 Ks, 0.794 WHIP

2nd Half – 2 W, 17 SV, 3.33 ERA, 17 Ks, 1.704 WHIP

4. Frank Francisco – First half: $13.12; Final: $6.26; Difference: $6.86

1st Half – 2 W, 15 SV, 2.28 ERA, 32 Ks, 0.940 WHIP

2nd Half – 0 W, 10 SV, 5.82 ERA, 25 Ks, 1.338 WHIP

5. Francisco Rodriguez – First half: $17.41; Final: $11.09; Difference: $6.32

1st Half – 2 W, 23 SV, 1.90 ERA, 42 Ks, 1.242 WHIP

2nd Half – 1 W, 12 SV, 6.75 ERA, 31 Ks, 1.421 WHIP

Here are the extreme second half pitchers:

1. Bronson Arroyo – First half: -$16.02; Final: $7.46; Difference: $23.48

1st Half – 9 W, 5.38 ERA, 59 Ks, 1.482 WHIP

2nd Half – 6 W, 2.24 ERA, 68 Ks, 1.043 WHIP

2. Jorge de la Rosa – First half: -$10.38; Final: $8.48; Difference: $18.86

1st Half – 6 W, 5.21 ERA, 99 Ks, 1.448 WHIP

2nd Half – 10 W, 3.46 ERA, 94 Ks, 1.302 WHIP

3. Cliff Lee – First half: -$4.51; Final: $12.84; Difference: $17.35

1st Half – 4 W, 3.47 ERA, 93 Ks, 1.386 WHIP

2nd Half – 10 W, 2.92 ERA, 88 Ks, 1.070 WHIP

4. Ricky Nolasco – First half: -$11,05; Final: $6.17; Difference: $17.22

1st Half – 6 W, 5.76 ERA, 90 Ks, 1.390 WHIP

2nd Half – 7 W, 4.39 ERA, 105 Ks, 1.124 WHIP

5. Jon Garland – First half: -$16.27; Final: $0.13; Difference: $16.40

1st Half – 5 W, 4.53 ERA, 44 Ks, 1.500 WHIP

2nd Half – 6 W, 3.42 ERA, 65 Ks, 1.289 WHIP

Here were the top five fantasy hitters at the All-Star break:

Albert Pujols – .332-32-87-73-10

Carl Crawford – .309-8-39-58-44

Hanley Ramirez – .349-14-61-53-13

Ichiro Suzuki – .362-6-24-45-19

Chase Utley – .313-20-61-62-9

Here were the top five fantasy pitchers at the All-Star break:

Dan Haren – 9 W, 2.01 ERA, 129 Ks, 0.808 WHIP

Tim Lincecum – 10 W, 2.33 ERA, 149 Ks, 1.050 WHIP

Zack Greinke – 10 W, 2.12 ERA, 129 Ks, 1.076 WHIP

Jonathan Broxton – 6 W, 20 SV, 3.10 ERA, 65 Ks, 0.934 WHIP

Joe Nathan – 1 W, 23 SV, 1.31 ERA, 43 Ks, 0.728 WHIP

Finally, here are some second half lines that stood out and were not mentioned above:

Rajai Davis – .325-1-42-46-30

Paul Janish – .202-1-13-26-2

C.C, Sabathia – 11 W, 2.74 ERA, 102 Ks, 1.141 WHIP

Luke Hochevar – 2 W, 7.35 ERA, 80 Ks, 1.599 WHIP

2010 New York Yankees Preview

C.C. Sabathia, LHP
A.J. Burnett, RHP
Javier Vazquez, RHP
Andy Pettitte, LHP
Phil Hughes, RHP

Closers and Setup
Mariano Rivera, RHP
Joba Chamberlain, RHP

Starting Lineup
Curtis Granderson, CF
Derek Jeter, SS
Mark Teixeria, 1B
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Nick Johnson, DH
Jorge Posada, C
Robinson Cano, 2B
Nick Swisher, RF
Randy Winn, LF

Player in Decline
This isn’t an easy choice with a roster as stacked as the Yankees but our candidate will be pitcher Javy Vasquez. His below- average fly-ball rate won’t help him in the new Yankee stadium and it’s going to be hard for him to come near his 0.82 HR/9 rate from last season.

Player on the Rise
Whoever is awarded the fifth spot in the rotation has massive potential to put together a nifty 2010. Everyone has seen flashes of brilliance from Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes and it wouldn’t be surprising if either of them post top-of-the-rotation-like numbers from the fifth starter’s spot.

Top 5 Fantasy Players
3B Alex Rodriguez: Elite
SP C.C. Sabathia: Elite
1B Mark Teixiera: Elite
SS Derek Jeter: Elite
RP Mariano Rivera: Elite

Top 10 Prospects
1. Jesus Montero, C
2. Austin Romine, C
3. Zach McAllister, RHP
4. Manny Banuelos, LHP
5. Slade Heathcott, OF
6. Mark Melancon, RHP
7. Gary Sanchez, C
8. J.R. Murphy, C
9. Corban Joseph, 2B
10. Kevin De Leon, OF

Overall Team Outlook: After missing the postseason in 2008, the Yankees organization returned to championship glory in 2009. The Yankees will try to build off of its 103-win championship season and has made the necessary moves to put the club in the best position to do so. GM Brian Cashman was aggressive in adding superstar Curtis Granderson to his lineup and Javy Vasquez to the middle of his deep rotation. The Yankees roster is stacked and the club figures to make another run at a championship in 2010. Anything less would amount to a failed season.

The Starting Rotation: C.C. Sabathia will remain the anchor at the top of the Yankees rotation and is a top starting-pitching option in all fantasy formats. He posted his lowest strikeout rate (7.71 K/9) since 2006 and an uptick in that number wouldn’t be surprising and would only increase his already gaudy production. Sabathia is the Yankees’ horse and slated behind him will be the fire-balling A.J. Burnett. Burnett avoided the injury bug last year and made 33 starts. He gets plenty of strikeouts but his below-average control tends to hurt him. The Yankees reacquired Vasquez this offseason and he and Andy Pettite will battle for the third spot in the rotation.

The loser will wind up being the fourth starter but Vasquez is coming off a career year where he put everything together and even prevented the home run (0.82 HR/9), which contradicts his career pattern (1.16 HR/9). Expect some regression from Vasquez’s ace-like season (2.77 FIP), but he should still be a solid fantasy option that eats innings and records oodles of strikeouts. Pettite offers value, too, but lacks the upside of Vasquez. The fifth and final spot will either go to Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes. Chamberlain had bouts of inconsistency last year as a starter, but we all know what he’s capable of and his power arm is very tantalizing. Hughes was a nice contributor in the bullpen last year but came up as a starter. Whichever route the Yankees choose to go, the fifth starter deserves a mid-to-late round flier in your draft.

The Bullpen: Mariano Rivera just keeps defying time; he’s now 40 years old but a top closer option in all fantasy formats. His cutter keeps sawing off bats, he’s in a contract year, and he keeps racking up strikeouts while exhibiting impeccable command. It’s going to be awfully interesting to see how much longer Rivera will continue to want to play. His skill set is still remarkable. Barring injury, Rivera will be the saves man once again in New York during 2010. Either Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes figure to be one of Mo’s top set-up men in 2010. Whoever doesn’t start and is regulated to the bullpen has the potential to put together a dominant season as the bridge to Rivera.

The Starting Line Up: This lineup is stacked from one through nine. It’s no coincidence that the Yankees led the league in scoring last year. The club is the favorite to repeat that feat this season. The newly acquired Curtis Granderson figures to bat leadoff this season and he brings a nifty blend of power and speed to the center-field position. Expect a big 2010 from Granderson. His career-low .276 BABIP in 2009 screams for regression. His career BABIP is .323. Derek Jeter had one of his best seasons on many fronts last season; the friendly confines of the new Yankee Stadium only appeared to help him. He’s going to be in a contract year and one must figure that Jeter will finish his career in a Yankee uniform. Mark Teixiera and Alex Rodriguez are elite fantasy options at their respective corner positions and A-Rod should put up monstrous numbers now that he’s fully recovered from the hip surgery that cost him playing time early last season.

Jorge Posada bounced back from an ugly 2008 and is aging well. He’s a top-hitting catcher and is good for 20+ homers. Nick Swisher is slotted for right-field duty and he offers plenty of pop, walks, and strikeouts. The free-swinging Robinson Cano had some better batted-ball luck last season and returned to his power-hitting ways. He’s tough to figure out at times but his power from the second base position is a plus. Nick Johnson was brought back to New York to become the full-time DH, but he offers more real-life value than fantasy value if he can avoid injury and consistently stay on the field. If healthy, he’ll post one of the league’s highest on-base-percentages, but his homer ceiling floats around 15. Either Randy Winn or Brett Gardner will be the team’s left fielder and both of their fantasy values are limited. Gardner can steal some bases and Winn could in his heyday, but with Winn aging it’s not probable that he reaches his former peak performances, which consisted of higher batting averages and 10+ homers.

The Bench: Rule 5 selection Jamie Hoffmann has a shot at becoming the team’s fifth outfielder. If he doesn’t snatch up the job, recent waiver claim Greg Golson appears next in line. Defensive specialist Ramiro Pena will aid the Yankees’ middle infielders. Whoever doesn’t win the starting job in left field, Winn or Gardner, will be a big contributor off the bench. Winn could become Granderson’s platoon partner against lefties due to Granderson’s obvious inability to hit them.

2010 Los Angeles Angels Preview

Jered Weaver, RHP
Scott Kazmir, LHP
Ervin Santana, RHP
Joe Saunders, LHP
Joel Pineiro, RHP

Closers and Setup
Brian Fuentes, LHP
Fernando Rodney, RHP

Starting Lineup
Erick Aybar, SS
Bobby Abreu, RF
Torii Hunter, CF
Hideki Matsui, DH
Kendry Morales, 1B
Juan Rivera, LF
Howie Kendrick, 2B
Mike Napoli, C
Brandon Wood, 3B

Player in Decline
There is no obvious choice here but Abreu, who will be 36 when the season starts, posted a .142 ISO last year, a 34-point drop from 2008 and his lowest since being a part-time player in 1997.

Player on the Rise
The Angels have been expecting big things from Kendrick for years but he has been unable to stay healthy. Last year there were no injury problems and after the All-Star break he posted a .948 OPS with six homers in 165 at-bats.

Top 5 Fantasy Players
Kendry Morales: Average
Torii Hunter: Average
Bobby Abreu: Average
Brian Fuentes: Average
Jered Weaver: Average

Top 10 Prospects
1. Hank Conger, C
2. Jordan Walden, RHP
3. Mike Trout, OF
4. Trevor Reckling, LHP
5. Peter Bourjos, OF
6. Fabio Martinez, RHP
7. Trevor Bell, RHP
8. Mark Trumbo, OF
9. Tyler Chatwood, RHP
10. Chris Pettit, OF

Overall team outlook: The Angels have won the American League West five of the past six seasons. But the loss of key free agents, including leadoff hitter Chone Figgins and No. 1 starter John Lackey, leaves the division up for grabs this year. Each of the other three clubs in the division has made key updates, making the AL West the most competitive division in baseball.

The Starting Rotation: While the Angels lost Lackey, they still have a deep and talented rotation. While there is no true ace, recently acquired Joel Pineiro, along with holdovers Ervin Santana, Joe Saunders, and Jered Weaver have all reached the 15-win plateau in one of the past two seasons. And Scott Kazmir is no one’s idea of a fifth starter, with an ERA under 4.00 in four of the past five years. But there are questions surrounding each of them. Can Pineiro maintain his ground-ball rate, his pinpoint control, and his miniscule home-run rate without the aid of former pitching coach Dave Duncan? Is Santana fully recovered from the various arm injuries that ruined his 2009 season? Will Saunders continue to outpitch his peripherals, which gave him a 5.17 FIP last year? How will Weaver handle the designation as the team’s ace? Can Kazmir avoid the mechanical flaws that led to a drop in velocity and a 5.92 ERA with the Rays last year? But while there are some questions, the Angels also have good depth, with Matt Palmer, Sean O’Sullivan, and Shane Loux, who combined for 29 starts last year, available to fill in as needed.

The Bullpen: For years a team strength, the bullpen was not nearly as solid last year. Brian Fuentes, imported to replace Francisco Rodriguez as closer, racked up 47 saves but was erratic and struggled against right-handed batters to the point where manager Mike Scioscia went to matchups down the stretch in the ninth inning. Fuentes retains his closer job. But if he falters again, the club has newly acquired Fernando Rodney, who had 37 saves last year for the Tigers, as another option. The club hopes a return of Scot Shields, who missed most of 2009 after undergoing knee surgery, helps stabilize the pen. Also returning is veteran Jason Bulger, who excelled last year in his first extended stay in the Majors, featuring a curveball that was 12.8 runs above average.

The Starting Lineup: In addition to Figgins, the Angels also lost starting DH Vladimir Guerrero to free agency. The club will give long-term top prospect Brandon Wood the first shot at the third base job and imported veteran Hideki Matsui to replace Guerrero. The other seven hitters return from last year’s squad, which finished second in the AL with 883 runs scored. The big question is will the Angels be able to recoup the lost production at the top of the order? Last year, Figgins finished second in the league with 114 runs, thanks in large part to his .395 OBP. Shortstop Erick Aybar should get the first crack at the leadoff spot, but last year he had a career-best .353 OBP.

The Angels brought back Bobby Abreu, who was credited by many for the team’s more patient approach at the plate last year. Abreu posted a .390 OBP but did not lead off once last year and has done it just 30 times in his 14-year career. The Angels hope Kendry Morales can build upon last year’s breakout season, which featured a .382 wOBA. The club also needs repeat seasons from Torii Hunter, whose .379 wOBA last year was a career-best, and Juan Rivera, who established a personal high with 25 homers. Wood could be another source of power, if he makes enough contact (MLB K%: 33%) to keep the job. Second baseman Howie Kendrick may have to battle Maicer Izturis for playing time, but he finally started producing last year. After his recall from the minors, Kendrick batted .351/.387/.532 over his final 199 plate appearances.

The Bench: The Angels feature a quasi-platoon behind the plate, with Mike Napoli and his 122 wRC+ forming the offensive half and Jeff Mathis as more of a defensive-minded backstop. Napoli is a potent bat off the bench on days when he is not in the lineup, although he could see time at both DH and first base this year. The club re-signed Izturis to a three-year deal, giving them a quality reserve player who can play any of the infield positions. With the trade of Gary Matthews, Reggie Willits becomes the top outfield reserve.

2010 Oakland Athletics Preview

Brett Anderson, LHP
Trevor Cahill, RHP
Dallas Braden, RHP
Justin Duchscherer, RHP
Vin Mazzaro, RHP

Closers and Setup
Andrew Bailey, RHP
Brad Ziegler, RHP

Starting Lineup
Coco Crisp, CF
Rajai Davis, LF
Ryan Sweeney, RF
Kevin Kouzmanoff, 3B
Jack Cust, DH
Kurt Suzuki, C
Daric Barton, 1B
Mark Ellis, 2B
Cliff Pennington, SS

Player in Decline
Rajai Davis is a burner and should provide plenty of steals when he’s on base. That might not be as often next year, however. The former Pirates prospect doesn’t have much in the way of secondary skills, and he benefitted from a near .370 BABIP last season. Expect a batting average closer to the .270-.280 range, as opposed to Davis’ .305 mark in 2009.

Player on the Rise
Cahiill punched out 10 batters per nine innings in the minor leagues, displaying a plus curve and slider. If he can rediscover those pitches, his K-rate should improve considerably.

Top 5 Fantasy Players
Brett Anderson: Elite
Andrew Bailey: Elite
Kurt Suzuki: Average
Trevor Cahill: Deep League
Gio Gonzalez: Deep League

Top 10 Prospects
1. Chris Carter, 1B
2. Michael Taylor, OF
3. Jemile Weeks, 2B
4. Adrian Cardenas, 2B
5. Tyson Ross, RHP
6. Grant Green, SS
7. Pedro Figueroa, RHP
8. Max Stassi, C
9. Fautino De Los Santos, RHP
10. Sean Doolittle, 1B

Overall team outlook: The A’s broke in several high-upside starters and a shut-down closer in 2009, and a flood of position prospects are on the way. In the meantime, Oakland will give a few second-tier youngsters a chance to prove they’re deserving of inclusion in the club’s long-term plans.

The Starting Rotation: A pitcher can do three things to help himself: get strikeouts, limit walks, and keep the ball on the ground. Brett Anderson excels in all three aspects. Health permitting, Anderson has the skills to be a top-20 starter in 2010. Trevor Cahill didn’t have near the same smooth transition to the Majors as Anderson, as he struggled to fool batters, pitched away from lefties, and scrapped his breaking stuff. Keep in mind that he’s barely old enough to buy a beer and came into 2009 with little experience above A-ball. There’s a lot of potential here, but be wary for now. Dallas Braden’s season ended in August after a left foot rash led to nerve irritation. To avoid irritation yourself, take note that Braden had an ERA in the high 3.00s but had the peripherals of a pitcher with an ERA in the high 4.00s.

Justin Duchscherer missed the 2009 season while recovering from elbow surgery and a bout with depression. He won’t repeat his 2008 work, but The Duke’s useful if he still has plus control and a deceptive cutter/curve combo. Gio Gonzalez oscillates between enthralling and exasperating, possessing a big curve that leads to Ks and walks by the bushel. His FIP was much lower than his ERA last year. Vin Mazzaro has low-90s gas and a power slider, but doesn’t whiff as many batters as you would expect. As a sinker/slider righty with average command, Clay Mortensen has a limited ceiling.

The Bullpen: A former starter shifted to relief, Andrew Bailey used his mid-90s four-seamer, high-80s cutter, and high-70s curve to demolish batters during his rookie year. He did benefit from a very low BABIP and home-run rate, but Bailey has a rare combination of power and precision. The 6’3’’, 235-pounder belongs in the elite class of closers. A submarine pitcher whose fastball couldn’t tear through tissue paper, Brad Ziegler burns worms like few others but will never post huge K rates. Mike Wuertz, on the other hand, whiffed 11.7 batters per nine frames last year with his biting slider. His stuff is closer-worthy.

The Starting Lineup: Daric Barton finally showed signs of life last season. His plate discipline is immaculate, but Barton has limited pop at a position where power is a prerequisite. Mark Ellis was sidelined with a calf injury, after suffering a shoulder malady in 2008. Ellis has some doubles power, but he’s just an option in AL-only leagues. Cliff Pennington has a good eye and some speed, but he’ll have to prove he can avoid getting the bat knocked out of his hands. Kevin Kouzmanoff gets out of Petco, but the Coliseum constricts righty thump, too. Don’t expect a huge breakout in 2010.

Rajai Davis is highly unlikely to replicate his offensive performance from 2009, but he does have serious wheels and is a good bet to nab 30-40 bags if he has a full-time job. Coco Crisp’s shoulder went snap, crackle, pop last year, requiring season-ending surgery. He’s nothing special offensively, though he could offer 20 steals. It’s probably time to stop looking at Ryan Sweeney’s 6’4’’ frame and hoping he’ll turn into a power hitter. Jack Cust didn’t hit with the same authority last year, as his ISO fell nearly 70 points. Cust is still outfield-eligible, though A’s fans wish he wasn’t. Kurt Suzuki traded some patience for power last season, as he upped his ISO by 60 points but saw his walk rate dip three percentage points.

The Bench: Jake Fox can mash, but he’s ultra-aggressive and doesn’t have a defensive home. With Cust return, Fox’s playing time depends on how much the A’s can stomach his glove. Back, shoulder, and elbow injuries have sabotaged Eric Chavez’s once-promising career. Eric Patterson stole 43 bases at Triple-A last year. He’s buried on the depth chart, though. Travis Buck needs a healthy season to avoid falling into obscurity. Switch-hitter Landon Powell has better secondary skills than your average back-up catcher.

2010 Philadelphia Phillies Preview

Roy Halladay, RHP
Cole Hamels, LHP
Joe Blanton, RHP
J.A. Happ, LHP
Jamie Moyer, LHP

Closers and Setup
Brad Lidge, RHP
Ryan Madson, RHP

Starting Lineup
Jimmy Rollins, SS
Placido Polanco, 3B
Chase Utley, 2B
Ryan Howard, 1B
Jayson Werth, RF
Raul Ibanez, LF
Shane Victorino, CF
Carlos Ruiz, C

Player in Decline
Many owners expect Jimmy Rollins to bat .300 and add 25-plus homers to his steal totals. That won’t happen anymore. Rollins career .274 average is a good benchmark to set, as is 20 homers.

Player on the Rise
Now that he is firmly the No. 1 catcher, Carlos Ruiz can use his power to the best of his ability. A 15-homer season with solid RBI numbers could be on the horizon, if you’re willing to take on his sub-par batting average.

Top 5 Fantasy Players
Chase Utley – Elite
Ryan Howard – Elite
Roy Halladay – Elite
Jayson Werth – Elite
Shane Victorino – Elite

Top 10 Prospects
1. Domonic Brown, OF
2. Phillippe Aumont, RHP
3. Trevor May, RHP
4. Juan Ramirez, RHP
5. Sebastian Valle, C
6. Brody Colvin, RHP
7. Tyson Gillies, OF
8. Anthony Gose, OF
9. Antonio Bastardo, LHP
10. John Mayberry Jr., OF

Overall Team Outlook: The Phillies came home with the World Series crown in 2008, but fell just short in 2009. The organization didn’t stand still, making some moves that it feels will have improved the big-league club. They’ll be looking to make it back to the big series again in 2010.

The Starting Rotation: Acquired from the Blue Jays this offseason for a package of prospects, Roy Halladay will head up the Phillies rotation heading into 2010. This is Halladay’s first year in the NL, and his vast arsenal of pitches should lead to utter dominance and competition for the Cy Young award. Cole Hamels was somewhat of a disappointment last year, but wasn’t as bad as everyone thought. He should bounce back a bit in 2010 and be a great No. 2 starter for the Phils.

Joe Blanton will be back to eat some innings and try to keep the Phillies offense in the game. After impressing in the rotation and out of the bullpen last year, J.A. Happ will likely spend an entire season in the starting rotation. Hitters will now have a book on Happ, so he’ll have to adjust in his sophomore season. Jamie Moyer, aka “Old Man River”, will try to give the Phillies one more year of soft-tossing in the five hole, but he’s also coming back from some pretty serious health issues that required hospitalization in the offseason.

The Bullpen: After a dominant 2008, Brad Lidge returned to his old self last year and has forced the Phillies to consider other options for the ninth inning. Ryan Madson is waiting to take over the role, but Philadelphia doesn’t seem convinced he’s the answer. Newly acquired Danys Baez has experience as a closer, and could be asked to take over. With lefty J.C. Romero in the pen all year, they should be able to lock down more games this season.

The Starting Lineup: The club has tailored its lineup to fit the home ballpark, and it has paid dividends. Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Raul Ibanez all provide left-handed pop and the ability to drive in runs with ease. Utley is also a base-stealing threat and an excellent defender to boot. Howard continues to be a Three True Outcome guy, and needs to hit lefties better to balance out the lineup. Jimmy Rollins will be topping the lineup and should cross home plate quite often. Former No. 2 hitter Shane Victorino is being moved down in the order to accommodate newly acquired third baseman Placido Polanco. Polanco played with the Phillies in the past, and his high-average/low-strikeout game seemed favorable to GM Ruben Amaro this offseason, but his power output is below average for his new position. (He played second base in Detroit).

Victorino should still create havoc on the base paths for opposing teams, but he will also have the chance to knock in some runs this time around. All-around stud Jayson Werth will be counted on to mash lefties and bring balance to the lineup, as well as play stellar defense in right field. Loveable catcher Carlos Ruiz will be back and starting for the Phillies and is better than many may think. His adequate power and above-average walk rate make him a great hitter to have at the bottom of the order, as he can drive in runs before the pitcher comes to the dish.

The Bench: The Phillies made attempts to change the bench after last season. Ben Francisco, acquired in the Cliff Lee trade, will be the fourth outfielder and will be the first right-handed bat off the bench. Ross Gload will back up Ryan Howard, and Juan Castro will provide insurance at the rest of the infield spots. Veteran Brian Schneider will be the No. 2 catcher, with corner infielder Greg Dobbs and outfielder John Mayberry completing the bench.

2010 Pittsburgh Pirates Preview

Paul Maholm, LHP
Ross Ohlendorf, RHP
Zach Duke, LHP
Charlie Morton, RHP
Kevin Hart, RHP

Closers and Setup
Octavio Dotel, RHP
Joel Hanrahan, RHP

Starting Lineup
Andrew McCutchen, CF
Akinori Iwamura, 2B
Garrett Jones, RF
Andy LaRoche, 3B
Ryan Doumit, C
Lastings Milledge, LF
Jeff Clement, 1B
Ronny Cedeno, SS

Player in Decline
Garrett Jones went bonkers upon reaching Pittsburgh last July. The lefty batter never worked the count particularly well in the minors, walking in slightly more than 7% of his plate appearances, but boosted that figure to more than 11% in the Majors as a result of eight intentional walks.

Player on the Rise
If he can sharpen his control and pull the string more effectively, Morton could be an above-average starter. Andy LaRoche, a career .295/.382/.517 minor league hitter, began driving the ball more as 2009 came to a close.

Top 5 Fantasy Players
Andrew McCutchen – Average
Ryan Doumit – Average
Octavio Dotel – Average
Andy LaRoche – Deep League
Garrett Jones – Deep League

Top 10 Prospects
1. Pedro Alvarez, 3B
2. Brad Lincoln, RHP
3. Tony Sanchez, C
4. Jose Tabata, OF
5. Tim Alderson, RHP
6. Jeff Locke, LHP
7. Chase d’Arnaud, SS
8. Zack Von Rosenberg, RHP
9. Rudy Owens, LHP
10. Starling Marte, OF

Overall team outlook: To assess Pittsburgh’s philosophy, look no further than last year’s opening day lineup: only Ryan Doumit and Andy LaRoche figure to return as starters. Rather than resigning the franchise to languid 70-win seasons, GM Neal Huntington took controversial, bold steps to give the roster an infusion of young, cost-controlled talent. After years of running in place, the team is now fully committed to player development.

The Starting Rotation: Paul Maholm’s ground-ball tendencies, plus control, and durability make him an asset to the Pirates, but his lack of punch-outs hinders his fantasy value. Ross Ohlendorf missed more bats during the second half of the season: 6.3 K/9 after the All-Star break, compared to 5.1 K/9 before the mid-point. Still, be skeptical of the sub-4.00 ERA. His BABIP was just .265. Ohlendorf’s fielding-independent stats suggest an ERA in the 4.50 range. Zach Duke is much like Maholm, with even fewer whiffs and a couple fewer walks. Despite the huge fluctuations in his ERA over the past three years (5.53 in 2007, 4.82 in 2008, 4.06 in 2009), Duke has been the same league-average innings-muncher. After aggravating scouts for years with incongruent scouting reports and results, Charlie Morton has a 3.1 K/BB ratio in Triple-A and was acquired from the Braves in last year’s Nate McLouth deal. The 6’4’’ righty gets grounders with a heavy low-90s heater and also has a quality curve, but his control is intermittent and a lagging change-up makes him vulnerable to lefty batters.

Former Cub Kevin Hart struck out nearly a batter per inning in the minors between the ‘pen and the rotation, but he has issued five free passes per nine innings in the Majors. He may be better suited for relief. Daniel McCutchen refuses to walk hitters and has a great track record, but his stuff is average and he’s an extreme fly-ball pitcher. Once a top prospect, Donnie Veal has serious control problems and spent last year in Rule 5 purgatory. He did have a promising Arizona Fall League season, though.

The Bullpen: With Matt Capps in Washington, Octavio Dotel takes over the ninth inning for Pittsburgh. Dotel has the second-highest K rate among relievers over the past two seasons, striking out 11.6 per nine frames. He has walked a batter every other inning over the time period, and Dotel gives up a ton of fly balls. His new home should help that latter problem, as it’s pretty difficult to go yard at PNC Park, particularly for righty hitters. Pumping mid-90s fastballs and mid-80s sliders, Joel Hanrahan has K’d 9.4 batters per nine innings in the big leagues. Unfortunately, he has also walked 5.2 per nine. Evan Meek misses bats and keeps the ball in the dirt, but with a career 6.2 BB/9, he makes Hanrahan look sharp by comparison.

The Starting Lineup: Andrew McCutchen is the sort of impact talent that Pittsburgh has lacked for years. The 2005 first-round pick has a polished approach at the plate; Olympic speed and quick wrists generate more power than you’d expect from his slender frame. He probably won’t post another ISO near .190, but McCutchen is the real deal. Akinori Iwamura won’t wow you offensively, but he rarely chases junk pitches and provides solid OBP figures. Garrett Jones packs a punch, but expecting anything near his 2009 performance would be misguided. A doubles and walks machine in the minors, Andy LaRoche was a league-average batter last season. The 26-year-old corner infielder is no star, but his big second half gives hope that there’s room for improvement.

Ryan Doumit’s season was curtailed by a wrist injury that sapped his bat control. Here’s the Catch-22 with the switch-hitter: his bat is a plus behind the plate, but catching exacerbates his lack of durability. The sheen is off Lastings Milledge; part of last year’s feeble hitting can be explained by a fractured finger, but his lack of strike-zone control is glaring. Speaking of fallen prospects, Jeff Clement may no longer don the tools of ignorance due to knee problems. That puts a big dent in his value, as his lumber would be potent for a backstop, but is ordinary at first base. Ronny Cedeno and Bobby Crosby will battle for the shortstop position, in a contest that would have been intriguing five years ago. Now, it’s just kinda sad.

The Bench: Delwyn Young’s trial run at second base reminded the Bucs why the Dodgers moved him off the keystone in the first place. The switch-hitter doesn’t have the bat for the outfield corners. Ryan Church hasn’t shown much pop lately, as post-concussion syndrome and back spasms have limited him. If healthy, he could work his way into Pittsburgh’s outfield plans. A Rule 5 pick from Florida, John Raynor hit a wall offensively at Triple-A. He’s a big stolen-base threat, however. Given substantial playing time last season, Brandon Moss scuffled and now appears buried on the outfield depth chart. Jason Jaramillo doesn’t have much in the way of secondary skills, but he’s an acceptable backup who could get 200+ at-bats, given Doumit’s injury history.

2010 Houston Astros Preview

Roy Oswalt, RHP
Wandy Rodriguez, LHP
Brett Myers, RHP
Bud Norris, RHP
Brian Moehler, RHP

Closers and Setup
Matt Lindstrom, RHP
Brandon Lyon, RHP

Starting Lineup
Michael Bourn, CF
Hunter Pence, RF
Lance Berkman, 1B
Carlos Lee, LF
Pedro Feliz, 3B
Kazuo Matsui, 2B
Humberto Quintero, C
Tommy Manzella, SS

Player in Decline
After being a perennial 30-homer hitter, Carlos Lee has fallen back to earth. Lee will still give you 20+ dingers and a .300 average, but the days of him being your biggest masher are behind him.

Player on the Rise
Striking out 54 batters in 55 innings allowed Bud Norris to maintain a job in the big leagues. With some work on his fastball command, he could turn into a quality waiver wire pick-up.

Top 5 Fantasy Players
Lance Berkman – Elite
Carlos Lee – Elite
Roy Oswalt – Average
Michael Bourn – Average
Wandy Rodriguez – Average

Top 10 Prospects
1. Jason Castro, C
2. Jordan Lyles, RHP
3. Jiovanni Mier, SS
4. Chia-Jen Lo, RHP
5. Ross Seaton, RHP
6. Tanner Bushue, RHP
7. Sammy Gervacio, RHP
8. Jonathan Gaston, OF
9. Jay Austin, OF
10. T.J. Steele, OF

Overall Team Outlook: Since being swept by the Chicago White Sox in the 2005 World Series, the Houston Astros organization has struggled to stay relevant and has not made the playoffs in the past four seasons. With a dismal farm system and a quickly aging MLB club, the club is attempting to put together a contending team this year, but faces a certain rebuild within three years.

The Starting Rotation: Perennial ace Roy Oswalt will once again head the Houston rotation. He has declined the past couple of years and will need to re-establish his fastball as a dominant pitch if he wants to stay on the top of his game. Wandy Rodriguez may be a better pitcher than Oswalt, even if he comes after him in the rotation. Wandy’s nasty curveball is a key part of his repertoire. Ever since a fantastic 2005 and 2006, No. 3 starter Brett Myers has struggled to stay on the field or remain effective when he actually does pitch. A change of scenery may be just what the doctor ordered. Bud Norris made his rookie debut last year and features a solid fastball/slider/change-up arsenal. He’ll come with the usual growing pains that you have to expect from young pitchers. Veteran Brian Moehler is in line to grab the No. 5 spot, but won’t do anything to impress anyone or make his mark on a game.

The Bullpen: Last year, closer Jose Valverde and set-up man LaTroy Hawkins were key cogs in the bullpen. Now, newly acquired arms Brandon Lyon and Matt Lindstrom will battle it out for the right to finish games for the Astros, as both Valverde and Hawkins have moved on. Lindstrom pitched for the Marlins in 2009, while Lyon was a part of the Tigers bullpen. Although Lyons does not have the same raw stuff as Lindstrom, he’s more reliable with a proven track record of average bullpen work.

The Starting Lineup: Michael Bourn is the lone lefty in the lineup, and will be relied upon to set the table and steal bases for the ‘Stros. Bourn is coming off a strong 2009 campaign, but it is unlikely that he will keep pace with the numbers he set in ‘09. Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman provide the pop, with Hunter Pence helping out in that department, as well. Berkman and Lee are both in the declining stages of their careers, but both have something to add to any offense. Pence will also be called on to swipe a couple of bases and use his speed to add an extra run or two to the offense. Pedro Feliz and Tommy Manzella are going to be counted on more for their defense than their abilities with the stick. However, Feliz has turned in decent offensive seasons in the past. The catcher position is a weak spot for Houston, with Humberto Quintero looking to hold off J.R. Towles for the job. Towles was supposed to be Houston’s catcher of the future, but he has struggled mightily in 268 Major League plate appearances. Kazuo Matsui returns for another season at second base, and his ability to hit from both sides of the plate helps balanced out the righty-centric order.

The Bench: Former starter Goeff Blum, who hits left-handed, will fill in at both corner-infield spots, with right-handed Jeff Keppinger backing up both middle-infield positions. Jason Michaels will be called on to back up all of the outfield positions, and J.R. Towles is likely to start the year as the back-up catcher.

2010 Kansas City Royals Preview

Zack Greinke, RHP
Gil Meche, RHP
Luke Hochevar, RHP
Kyle Davies, RHP
Brian Bannister, RHP

Closers and Setup
Joakim Soria, RHP
Kyle Farnsworth, RHP

Starting Lineup
Scott Podsednik, CF
David DeJesus, LF
Billy Butler, 1B
Rick Ankiel, RF
Jose Guillen, DH
Alex Gordon, 3B
Alberto Callaspo, 2B
Jason Kendall, C
Yuniesky Betancourt, SS

Player in Decline
Those stolen bases might look tempting, but Scott Podsednik benefitted from a .342 BABIP last year. That was about 20 points higher than his expected BABIP, and his career BABIP. A .270-hitting Podsednik isn’t so appealing, when you consider his lack of secondary skills.

Player on the Rise
Luke Hochevar’s career 5.88 ERA might make you want to turn and run, but his career FIP is a more palatable 4.67. He’s not star, but Hochevar has solid control, and an average whiff rate. Alex Gordon is another buy-low candidate, as many fantasy owners have been burned by the glacial start to his career.

Top 5 Fantasy Players
Zack Greinke: Elite
Joakim Soria: Elite
Billy Butler: Average
Alex Gordon: Deep League
Rick Ankiel: Deep League

Top 10 Prospects
1. Mike Montgomery, LHP
2. Mike Moustakas, 3B
3. Eric Hosmer, 1B
4. Danny Duffy, LHP
5. Aaron Crow, RHP
6. Wil Myers, C
7. Tim Melville, RHP
8. Kila Ka’aihue, 1B
9. David Lough, OF
10. Jeff Bianchi, SS

Overall team outlook: A club of contradictions, the Royals boasts one of the best starting pitchers on the planet, an emerging slugger at first base, a still-promising third baseman, and a farm system fertile in pitching. Yet, GM Dayton Moore has shown an alarming affinity for low-OBP hitters with fatal offensive flaws. You can see a better future, but you have to squint really hard and pretend that Jose Guillen and Yuniesky Betancourt aren’t there.

The Starting Rotation: In 2009, Zack Greinke graduated from stealth ace to widely praised A.L. Cy Young award winner. He won’t come cheap, but with three plus pitches and superb control, Greinke has staying power. Gil Meche enters 2010 as a huge question mark. He topped 200 frames in his first two years in Kansas City (the first two times he accomplished that feat), with a FIP in the high 3.00s. But he paid for it last year, suffering back and shoulder injuries. Tread cautiously. No, Luke Hochevar isn’t likely to become an ace. However, the first pick in the 2006 draft has pitched more like a mid-rotation starter than his ghastly ERA would suggest. Expect a FIP in the mid-4.00s next year.

Former Braves prospect Kyle Davies still can’t find the strike zone with GPS tracking. As a fly-ball pitcher with average K rates, Davies has to hone his control to have fantasy relevance. Adding a cutter to his arsenal and using his change-up more often, Brian Bannister raised his ground-ball rate significantly. That helped cure the gopher-itis that plagued him in years past. Robinson Tejeda impressed in some late-season starts and misses bats, but he makes Davies look like Greg Maddux.

The Bullpen: Though he battled shoulder problems, Joakim Soria was lights-out when he took the mound. The Mexicutioner whiffed a career-high 11.7 hitters per nine innings, with personal bests in outside swing percentage, contact rate, and first-pitch strike percentage to boot. Soria’s health bears watching (he dealt with a shoulder injury in 2007, as well), but he’s as wicked as they come. Kyle Farnsworth missed significant time with a groin strain, but did manage to whiff more than 10 hitters per nine frames. Juan Cruz was sidelined with a shoulder strain, and has now hit the DL four seasons running. Control has never been his strong suit, and his K rate dipped last year. Tejeda could work his way into the set-up role if he’s not needed in the rotation.

The Starting Lineup: Turning 24 in April, Billy Butler began to tap into his power last year – with an ISO nearing .200 – while also increasing his walk rate. He’s a quality hitter now, and he’s still improving. Alberto Callaspo seems unlikely to repeat last year’s power outburst (his ISO was nearly 40 points higher than his minor league mark), though his bat still trumps Chris Getz’s. Friends don’t let friends draft Yuniesky Betancourt. Mike Aviles, returning from Tommy John surgery, could enter the picture. Alex Gordon’s 2009 was wrecked by a hip injury, and he needs to answer questions about his ability to handle lefties and breaking stuff. Don’t make the mistake of writing him off, though. Despite those faults, he has been a league-average hitter, and there’s still potential for more.

David DeJesus offers steady, if unspectacular, production. Scott Podsednik’s return from the dead was fueled by a very high BABIP. Buyer beware. Slowed by shoulder, Achilles, and groin injuries, Rick Ankiel hit a wall (literally and figuratively) in 2009. If he can remain upright, he’s a good bet to return to his aggressive, slugging ways. Hitting became so unnatural to Jose Guillen that he tore his knee putting on a shin guard. Save yourself the pain of drafting him. Jason Kendall barely slugged .300 last season, and, at 35, he’s not suddenly going to revert to his halcyon days as a Pirate.

The Bench: A former first-round pick of the White Sox, Josh Fields lashes lefties and can actually draw a free pass every now and then. However, he has whiffed in over a third of his Major League plate appearances and is allergic to sliders. Getz makes plenty of contact and can swipe bases, though he offers little pop. He’ll battle it out at second base with Callaspo. Switch-hitter Brayan Pena provides more lumber than Kendall, though his receiving skills are poor. Mitch Maier doesn’t offer much upside. Grit isn’t a fantasy category, so feel free to ignore Willie Bloomquist unless you’re really desperate for stolen bases.

2010 Milwaukee Brewers Preview

Yovani Gallardo, RHP
Randy Wolf, LHP
Doug Davis, LHP
Jeff Suppan, RHP
Manny Parra, LHP

Closers and Setup
Trevor Hoffman, RHP
Todd Coffey, RHP

Starting Lineup
Rickie Weeks, 2B
Corey Hart, RF
Ryan Braun, LF
Prince Fielder, 1B
Casey McGehee, 3B
Gregg Zaun, C
Alcides Escobar, SS
Carlos Gomez, CF

Player in Decline
Despite a whole box of tools, Corey Hart has never approached the levels expected of him — largely due to a lack of plate discipline. Now 28, the right fielder most likely is what he is. “What he is” is basically an average hitter playing a position that ideally provides a little more than that.

Player on the Rise
Yovani Gallardo could have a season like last year’s and be a perfectly serviceable fantasy player. That said, he’s young enough that we can reasonably expect an improvement in control (4.56 BB/K last year). If the Brewers give him some run support, he could approach 15 wins with relative ease.

Top 5 Fantasy Players
Ryan Braun – Elite
Prince Fielder – Elite
Yovani Gallardo – Average
Randy Wolf – Average
Trevor Hoffman – Average

Top 10 Prospects
1. Alcides Escobar, SS
2. Brett Lawrie, 2B
3. Mat Gamel, 3B
4. Zach Braddock, LHP
5. Jonathan Lucroy, C
6. Jake Odorizzi, RHP
7. Eric Arnett, RHP
8. Cody Scarpetta, RHP
9. Wily Peralta, RHP
10. Kyle Heckathorn, RHP

Overall team outlook: A couple years ago, Milwaukee was situated as one of baseball’s more exciting teams, with a crop full of young, cost-controlled players. Now, with some departed (J.J. Hardy), some about to become expensive (Prince Fielder), and some plagued by injury (Rickie Weeks), the future is maybe a little less bright in Beer City.

The Starting Rotation: Yovani Gallardo’s 185.2 innings in 2009 outpaced his previous high (from 2007) by 75 innings. A similar workload, combined with a drop in walks (he averaged 4.56 per nine last season), could place him among the Majors’ elite starters. Randy Wolf’s production hasn’t really ever been the problem; it’s been his health. Last year marked the first time he’s hit 200 innings since 2003. Note that Miller Park shouldn’t be as friendly to his ERA as Dodger Stadium. Doug Davis is a bit of a poor man’s Randy Wolf – just with one more walk and one fewer strikeout per nine. Jeff Suppan was, at one point, the definition of league-average. Last year, he had a 1.08 K/BB ratio. Ick. The last spot in the rotation is mostly up for grabs. Manny Parra is a lefty with velocity and sink (48.7% career ground-ball rate) but serious control issues. David Bush’s 4.79 xFIP from 2009 is a lot better than 6.38 ERA he posted.

The Bullpen: The only real way to know Trevor Hoffman’s true age is to cut him in half and count the rings inside. Until he stops striking out eight per nine and saving 40 or so games per season, it’s unlikely that he or the Milwaukee Brewers will let anyone do that. When Hoffman’s not feeling up to it, Todd Coffey is a good candidate to pick up a save or two. The reliever finally lived up to his peripherals in 2009, posting a 2.90 ERA. Unfortunately for everyone, Mark DiFelice had surgery in early December to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff in his right shoulder. Hopefully, he and his cut fastball return in 2011.

The Starting Lineup: If you’re a Brewer fan, you’ll hope Manager Ken Macha is able to resist the temptation of batting either of his speediest speed merchants, Alcides Escobar or Carlos Gomez, at the top of the order, as neither is likely to get on base enough to warrant the extra plate appearances. Both will likely provide 20+ stolen bases in something like a full-time role. In lieu of either, Rickie Weeks – returning from another serious-ish injury – will most likely assume the leadoff role for 2010. Corey Hart batted second more often than anywhere else in the lineup last year – a bit of an oddity considering his questionable plate discipline (although his walk rate is considerably higher in the two-hole than anywhere else in the lineup). Ryan Braun frightens opposing pitchers and is possibly still getting better. Prince Fielder frightens pitchers, too, and is possibly still getting bigger*. Expect Casey McGehee’s BABIP to regress from the .335 he posted last year, perhaps making his hold on the fifth spot somewhat tenuous. Gregg Zaun is a useful option at catcher while prospects Jonathan Lucroy and Angel Salome develop in the high minors.

*Obligatory weight comment

The Bench: Like Kanye West, Jody Gerut is curious as to why you won’t let him be great. In the meantime, he’ll play a back-up role in the outfield along with grizzled vet Jim Edmonds. If the Carlos Gomez Experiment fails, either guy could be in line for more plate appearances. Craig Counsell ditched his funny batting stance in 2009 but also posted a 2.8 WAR as the Brewer infield slowly fell apart. He might very well be the Practically Perfect Utility Player.

2010 San Francisco Giants Preview

Tim Lincecum, RHP
Matt Cain, RHP
Barry Zito, LHP
Jonathan Sanchez, LHP
Madison Bumgarner, LHP

Closers and Setup
Brian Wilson, RHP
Jeremy Affeldt, LHP

Starting Lineup
Aaron Rowand, CF
Freddy Sanchez, 2B
Pablo Sandoval, 3B
Aubrey Huff, 1B
Mark DeRosa, LF
Edgar Renteria, SS
Nate Schierholtz, RF
Bengie Molina, C

Player in Decline
Matt Cain stranded a ton of base runners and got lucky with the batted balls last year, so he is the most likely player to take a step back. Most of the starting lineup is otherwise old and already in the midst of their decline periods, so no warning is needed.

Player on the Rise
The team boasts a fearsome duo of young battery mates in Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey, and with the pitchers’ velocity drop late last year, the bet here is that the catcher will shake off his late-season fatigue and put together the better debut season if he can push Molina out of the way.

Top 5 Fantasy Players
Tim Lincecum – Elite
Brian Wilson – Elite
Matt Cain – Elite
Pablo Sandoval – Elite
Mark DeRosa – Average

Top 10 Prospects
1. Buster Posey, C
2. Madison Bumgarner, LHP
3. Zach Wheeler, RHP
4. Thomas Neal, OF
5. Dan Runzler, LHP
6. Roger Kieschnick, OF
7. Brandon Crawford, SS
8. Ehire Adrianza, SS
9. Clayton Tanner, LHP
10. Tommy Joseph, C

Overall team outlook: Brian Sabean continues to run out declining and generally uninspiring veterans on offense, but since he was lucky enough to run into some serious starting pitching, his teams continue to be relevant late in the season. Is this the year a few of his veterans drink from the fountain of youth and score just enough runs to make it to the postseason?

The Starting Rotation: This is the rare starting rotation where every pitcher is rosterable in standard 12-team mixed fantasy leagues. Sure, Tim Lincecum and his incredible strikeout rate is the prize, but even all the way down to rookie Madison Bumgarner, the Giants’ staff offers something for everyone. Matt Cain may take a step back next year if his luck stats are to be trusted, but even with a slightly higher WHIP, he’ll be a solid mid-rotation fantasy starter.

Barry Zito has gone from laughing stock to afterthought to spot starter over the last three years. He plays enough games against the Padres to be interesting from time to time – and fantasy owners don’t have to pay his ridiculous salary. Jonathan Sanchez may actually be the most divisive Giants starter in fantasy circles – you either believe in his strikeouts, or you think the walks will keep him from ever fulfilling his potential.

The Bullpen: Beach Boy Brian Wilson made huge strides last year by increasing his strikeout rate and decreasing his walk rate. His luck stats don’t scream regression, but the projections have him taking a step back and losing some of those gains. No matter, he’ll still be a top closer, if only because he looks relatively stable, is young, and plays for a team that should have plenty of low-scoring games and closing opportunities. Jeremy Affeldt rode his plus fastball/curveball combination to the best ERA of his career, but the underlying stats weren’t as pristine. It’ll take an injury to make him a closer.

The Starting Lineup: The 26th-ranked offense in baseball can only get better in 2010, but Sabean sure loves to acquire mediocre veterans, doesn’t he? That description can pretty much describe every player in the starting lineup other than young stud Pablo “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval, whose game actually resembles his less-popular nickname, Fat Ichiro, with its high-BABIP, high-contact, high-wire approach. It’s nerve-wracking to recommend a guy with such a high BABIP, but he seems to have mastered some ability there. Otherwise, the rest of the offense features players that are best suited as late-round positional fillers at best.

Freddy Sanchez, Aubrey Huff, Mark DeRosa, Edgar Renteria, Bengie Molina, and Aaron Rowand are all below-average fantasy players that shouldn’t be rostered in traditional mixed leagues unless they happen to be hot while your starter is injured. Only Nate Schierholtz joins Sandoval on the better side of his peak, and he has yet to turn in a Major League performance that looks anything like his Triple-A success (.925+ OPS in two seasons there). If he holds on to his job all year, he may put up a .280/20/80 season that will come cheaply and be a boon to deep league managers.

The Bench: Despite all the hand-wringing about Fred Lewis failing to develop further, the young man has done well against righties and may actually push Mark DeRosa into a super-utility role many days. He’s worth a thought or two in deeper leagues as one of the few younger players in this offense. We know who Juan Uribe is, and it’s not very exciting. Eugenio Velez is young and fast, he just doesn’t make enough contact. Travis Ishikawa is also young, and could have made a glove-and-OBP player against righties at first base, but will have to play his way through Huff to matter.

2010 Minnesota Twins Preview

Scott Baker, RHP
Carl Pavano, RHP
Kevin Slowey, RHP
Nick Blackburn, RHP
Francisco Liriano, LHP

Closers and Setup
Joe Nathan, RHP
Matt Guerrier, RHP

Starting Lineup
Denard Span, CF
Orlando Hudson, 2B
Joe Mauer, C
Justin Morneau, 1B
Jason Kubel, DH
Michael Cuddyer, RF
Delmon Young, LF
J.J. Hardy, SS
Brendan Harris, 3B

Player in Decline
Although precipitous declines are not likely, both Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer are coming off career years. Some of this could be a shift in true talent, but most of it was probably luck. They should hit closer to their career averages than their 2009 performance.

Player on the Rise
Outfielder Denard Span had a good 2009, but he could be even better in 2010. He has youth on his side and the speed to steal 30 bases if he starts running a little more often and converts at a higher rate.

Top 5 Fantasy Players
Joe Mauer: Elite
Justin Morneau: Elite
Joe Nathan: Elite
Scott Baker: Average
Denard Span: Average

Top 10 Prospects
1. Aaron Hicks, OF
2. Wilson Ramos, C
3. Kyle Gibson, RHP
4. Danny Valencia, 3B
5. Angel Morales, OF
6. Miguel Sano, SS
7. Ben Revere, OF
8. Joe Benson, OF
9. Jeff Manship, RHP
10. David Bromberg, RHP

Overall team outlook: The Twins club returns as nearly the same team that won the AL Central in a 163rd game against the Detroit Tigers last year. And the club should be just as competitive in 2010, its first year in Target Field, since the AL Central brethren (unlike the Mariners, Yankees, and Red Sox) made few impact moves.

The Starting Rotation: Heading into spring training, four of the five spots in the Twins’ rotation are set. Scott Baker is the ace of the staff; he always has great K/BB ratios, leading to nice number of Ks with a good WHIP. However, he gives up too many fly balls, and thus home runs, to post an elite ERA. He is a solid mid-rotation pitcher in all leagues. Kevin Slowey should be ready to go for spring training after his September surgery. Like Baker, he gives up lots of fly balls, but has elite – even better than Baker’s – K/BB ratios. If he comes back from the injury, Slowey could be a very good fantasy pitcher.

Carl Pavano and Nick Blackburn round out the four set rotation spots: both should only be considered in deep-mixed or AL-only leagues. The fifth spot is up for grabs and the most intriguing candidate, from a fantasy perspective, is Francisco Liriano. He had a terrible 2009, but he was amazing pre-Tommy John and his numbers in the 2009-2010 Dominican Winter League were encouraging.

Bullpen: Joe Nathan had another extraordinary year closing for the Twins in 2009. He is one of the top-five closers heading into 2010. If anything happens to him, Matt Guerrier should be first in line for saves, but if Pat Neshek comes back strong from Tommy John surgery he could be in the running as well.

Starting Lineup: Even if Joe Mauer regresses a bit from his amazing 2009, he is still late first-round or early second-round talent and the top fantasy catcher. Justin Morneau, the Twins’ only other elite fantasy hitter, will be ready for spring training after missing the final three weeks of 2009 with a stress fracture in his back. After that, the Twins lineup features guys who are average-at-best, shallow-league contributors. Newly acquired J.J. Hardy will be the starting shortstop and he looks to return to his 2007-2008 form after an ugly 2009. Brendan Harris and Nick Punto round out the infield and bring positional flexibility, but neither has much value at all with the bat and should be avoided outside of the deepest AL-only leagues.

With the trade of Carlos Gomez the outfield is locked in with Denard Span, Michael Cuddyer, and Delmon Young. Cuddyer had a great 2009, hitting more than 30 homers for the first time. He is a serviceable third outfielder but some regression is likely, so don’t pay for his 2009 performance. Span is also a fair third outfielder, but has more upside since 30 steals in not out of the realm of possibility. Jason Kubel will be the starting DH, but he played enough outfield in 2009 to qualify as a fielder in 2010. Like Cuddyer and Span, he is an okay third outfielder, but like Cuddyer, Kubel is coming off a career year that will not likely be replicated so he could be overvalued.

Bench: The Twins signed Jim Thome as a bench player. He should get a good amount of playing time and showed in 2009 that he can still hit. There is chance he could get regular playing time against right-handed pitchers if the Twins club loses faith in Young. (Kubel would take over in left and Thome would DH). Alexi Casilla will back up second, and has immediate fantasy value if he finds a regular spot because of his potential to steal some bases.

2010 Cincinnati Reds Preview

Aaron Harang, RHP
Bronson Arroyo, RHP
Johnny Cueto, RHP
Homer Bailey, RHP
Micah Owings, RHP

Closers and Setup
Francisco Cordero, RHP
Nick Masset, RHP

Starting Lineup
Drew Stubbs, CF
Orlando Cabrera, SS
Joey Votto, 1B
Brandon Phillips, 2B
Scott Rolen, 3B
Jay Bruce, RF
Chris Dickerson, LF
Ramon Hernandez, C

Player in Decline
After pitching 210-plus innings from 2005-2007, Aaron Harang has yet to pitch more than 185 frames. His strikeouts have also declined, and his walks have risen. Not a recipe for success. This former fantasy stud is no longer worth your time.

Player on the Rise
In 42 big league games, Drew Stubbs has stolen 10 bases. Stubbs was a stealing machine in the upper minors, and with playing time on his side he should be able to at least double his 2009 mark. Just keep in mind that he’ll pile up the strikeouts, which will also bring down his batting average.

Top 5 Fantasy Players
Brandon Phillips – Elite
Joey Votto – Elite
Francisco Cordero – Average
Jay Bruce – Average
Johnny Cueto – Average

Top 10 Prospects
1. Yonder Alonso, 1B
2. Aroldis Chapman, LHP
3. Mike Leake, RHP
4. Todd Frazier, OF
5. Chris Heisey, OF
6. Brad Boxberger, RHP
7. Travis Wood, LHP
8. Zack Cozart, SS
9. Juan Francisco, 3B
10. Matt Maloney, LHP

Overall Team Outlook: Early in the offseason, the Reds organization was rumored to be cutting budget; after moving no one, though, it added to the payroll by signing Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman and veteran shortstop Orlando Cabrera. The team is looking to compete this year and beyond, and could make some noise in the NL Central if the pitching staff can improve and stay healthy.

The Starting Rotation: The Reds’ rotation will likely be its downfall at the start of the season, but could improve towards the second half. Aaron Harang is back for a seventh season in Cincy, but isn’t as good as he once was. A diminished ground-ball rate has killed him in recent seasons, and will need to improve if he wants to succeed. Bronson Arroyo will be looking to improve his strikeout rate and become a 2 WAR pitcher again in 2010. It seems like yesterday that Johnny Cueto was being called up to the big leagues, but this will be his third season in The Show. Like Arroyo, Cueto will be working on bringing his strikeout rate back to its past levels. Former No. 1 prospect Homer Bailey will be given another shot at the rotation, as will Micah Owings. Reinforcements could arrive after the All-Star break if the expected call-up of Aroldis Chapman actually happens. Also, former ace Edinson Volquez is working his way back from Tommy John surgery, but is a long shot to make enough starts to be valuable.

The Bullpen: Closer Francisco Cordero posted his fifth career 30-plus save season in 2009 and is back once again to lock down the ninth innings. In 2009, Cordero’s strikeout rate dropped below a batter per inning for the first time since 2002. Veteran Arthur Rhodes will be the lefty set-up man, and righty Nick Masset will handle the rest of the eighth-inning duties.

The Starting Lineup: First baseman Joey Votto will continue to anchor the Reds lineup and will be counted on to drive in runs. Votto’s .418 wOBA was fourth-best in the Majors last season. Brandon Phillips will also be back to spark the offense, in the batter’s box and on the base paths. After coming to the plate less than 400 times last year, Jay Bruce will try to turn in a full 2010 in right field. Bruce has an insane amount of power and will likely mash at least 20 homers again in 2010. Acquired late last season, Scott Rolen will be the Reds’ everyday man at third base and will be expected to play great defense and knock in base runners at the plate. Rolen is nearing his last lap, but he may have a good year or two left in him.

Chris Dickerson will attempt to playleft field, and his blazing speed will always make him an interesting and fun player to watch and root for, as well as have in your lineup. Veteran Orlando Cabrera will plug the hole at short for a year, with 2010 being his first season in the NL since he was traded to the Red Sox in 2004. After a decent rookie campaign, Drew Stubbs will get a shot as the full-time center fielder in 2010 and should make the best of it. Behind the plate, veteran Ramon Hernandez will look to turn in another unspectacular, yet solid, year.

The Bench: Paul Janish was looking forward to being the starting shortstop, but he will now be relegated to bench duty. Janish plays good “D,” but his bat has been far below replacement level to this point. Speedster Willy Taveras will be back-up in the outfield, and will likely be used as a pinch runner. Outfielder Wlad Balentien, catcher Ryan Hanigan, and utility man Drew Sutton will complete the crew on the pine.

2010 Cleveland Indians Preview

Jake Westbrook, RHP
Fausto Carmona, RHP
Justin Masterson, RHP
David Huff, LHP
Aaron Laffey, LHP

Closers and Setup
Kerry Wood, RHP
Chris Perez, RHP

Starting Lineup
Grady Sizemore, CF
Asdrubal Cabrera, SS
Shin-Soo Choo, RF
Jhonny Peralta, 3B
Travis Hafner, DH
Matt LaPorta, 1B
Michael Brantley, LF
Lou Marson, C
Luis Valbuena, 2B

Player in Decline
To be sure, Asdrubal Cabrera is a quality fantasy player. But his 2009 performance might be hard to repeat. He had a .362 BABIP, 20 points above his career average. There’s nothing wrong with targeting him, but expect a batting average closer to the .290 range than his .308 mark last year.

Player on the Rise
Looking for a cheap source of steals? Michael Brantley could be your man. The lefty batter won’t drive the ball, but he controls the strike zone and is a skilled base runner. Brantley swiped 46 bags at Triple-A last year. He’s an efficient base thief, too.

Top 5 Fantasy Players
Grady Sizemore: Elite
Shin-Soo Choo: Average
Asdrubal Cabrera: Average
Matt LaPorta: Deep League
Justin Masterson: Deep League

Top 10 Prospects
1. Carlos Santana, C
2. Lonnie Chisenhall, 3B
3. Alex White, RHP
4. Nick Hagadone, LHP
5. Hector Rondon, RHP
6. Carlos Carrasco, RHP
7. Jason Knapp, RHP
8. T.J. House, LHP
9. Michael Brantley, OF
10. Alexander Perez, RHP

Overall team outlook: With Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez finding new zip codes last summer, the Indians organization is in full-blown rebuilding mode. The offense figures to be potent. However, the starting rotation is in disarray. There are talented arms on the cusp of the Majors and several more in the pipeline, but growing pains are inevitable.

The Starting Rotation: There might not be a less-settled unit in the Majors. Jake Westbrook, formerly a worm-killing, innings-eating control artist, looks to return from Tommy John surgery. His lack of whiffs limits his fantasy appeal, though. Have you seen Fausto Carmona’s sinker? He has lost all semblance of control since those midges swarmed him during the 2007 playoffs. Perhaps it was an omen. Speaking of sinkers, Justin Masterson has a nasty one that eats up righty batters. However, his low three-quarters release makes him vulnerable to lefties, and he must do a better job of limiting free passes.

David Huff is the best of Cleveland’s gaggle of low-upside lefties. His stuff isn’t great, but Huff has a strong minor league track record. Aaron Laffey, never one to miss bats, suffered an oblique injury and failed to paint the corners. Jeremy Sowers walked more batters than he whiffed last year, and he’s a fly-ball pitcher, too. Nothing to see here. Carlos Carrasco had an ugly big league intro, but he had a 3.30 K/BB ratio at Triple-A and has a nice fastball/change-up combo. The breaking stuff needs work. Mitch Talbot gets grounders and is stingy with the walks. He’s a big-league-ready fourth or fifth starter.

The Bullpen: Cleveland tossed considerable cash at Kerry Wood in free agency prior to the ’09 season, only to watch him struggle with his control and post a 4.15 FIP. His fastball was the culprit, as Wood’s mid-90s gas was 1.5 runs worse per 100 pitches than it was in 2008. Batters chose to let him back himself into a corner, swinging at few outside pitches. Wood should bounce back somewhat next year, but Chris Perez is breathing down his neck. Perez loses the strike zone at times, but the former Cardinals prospect has a sizzling fastball and slider, and punched out 10.7 hitters per nine frames last year.

The Starting Lineup: Matt LaPorta underwent hip and toe surgeries in October, so he might be behind as spring training opens. The key piece in the C.C. Sabathia swap, LaPorta has top-shelf power and a patient approach. Luis Valbuena showed more thump than expected, but he struggles against southpaws and will have to hold off Jason Donald. Though he’s likely to regress somewhat, Asdrubal Cabrera is a quality shortstop who added some steals to his game. Chopping the ball into the dirt more than 50% of the time, Jhonny Peralta had a power outage last season. He had trouble catching up to fastballs, as his performance against heat declined by a run per 100 pitches seen compared to 2008.

Michael Brantley has limited pop, but he’s a burner with a clue at the plate. You’ll never have another chance to acquire Grady Sizemore at a discount, so draft him and smile as he returns to his 2005-2008 level of production. He was hobbled by a sports hernia and an elbow injury last season, as well as a lower-than-usual BABIP. A healthy Sizemore is still a first-round talent. Shin-Soo Choo brings patience, power and surprising speed to the table. While he might not repeat 2009, he’s a well-rounded fantasy option. Travis Hafner is no longer a menacing slugger, and his aching shoulder continues to be a problem. However, Pronk did bounce back from an abysmal 2008 showing. Lou Marson has limited time to prove he’s more than a handy back-up backstop, as switch-hitting force Carlos Santana isn’t far off.

The Bench: Entering 2009, Andy Marte’s career was on life support. Once the pride of the Braves system, Marte devolved into a hacking mess, tanking in trials with the Indians in 2007 and 2008. Though still a free swinger, he raked at Triple-A last year and didn’t totally embarrass himself in the Majors. Trevor Crowe has some speed and a decent eye, but a lack of pop and injuries resign him to a back-up role. Donald scuffled at Triple-A last year while hindered by a knee injury. He could be Valbuena’s caddy against lefty pitching.