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Don’t Call Them Tiers: Fantasy Talent Distribution

The data in this post is based on the evaluation system explained and updated some time ago. Players are grouped into their primary position from 2014, and stats are based on traditional 5×5 scoring.

Every year the fantasy world engages in the same old arguments: “Is Position X deep? Is it shallow? Why is the sky blue?” I think the third question has been answered sufficiently enough over the course of human history, but the first two queries are in need of annual research and updates.

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Steamer Fantasy Baseball Auction Values Now Up

I’m happy to announce the fantasy values have come to FanGraphs+! Based on Steamer projections, these values are for standard, OBP, and “only” leagues based on the following descriptors: 12 teams, 23 starting lineup slots, $260 budget. They will appear on the projections’ leaderboard for FanGraphs+ subscribers.

The methodology for these values has long floated around the site, but there are a few minor changes that have been made to better the accuracy and efficacy of these values.

The replacement levels have been altered to cover a full league’s worth of players. In the past, we had assumed that the last round of two contained replacement players, but discarding this assumption leads to fuller, more accurate auction values. Now, the top 276 players are worth a combined $3120, which is the full budgeted amount for a 12-team auction draft.

In the past, we’d limited results to players that met a certain at-bat or innings threshold. This is no longer the case. However, there is still need for a baseline uninfluenced by low counting stats, the league averages and standard deviations were calculated using the players with at least 350 ABs or 40 IP.


Valuing Upside Graphically

Picture this: you see two players left on the board, and you decide that one of them will be your next acquisition. You think long and hard, and your brain says that both players will likely be worth $15, and you can get either of them for around that price. When it comes time to bid on a player, you decide to target the player with more upside, because there’s a better chance he beats your projection than the other.

But why? If you valued both players at $15, then they should be worth the same amount come draft day. The players’ upside should be factored into the value you place upon them. Simply put, a $15 player should be equal to another $15 player. Simple as that.

So how do we go about factoring upside into a players’ value? Well, there are two ways, and one is much simpler than the other.

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Late-Round Draft Scenarios

When you go into a fantasy draft, you almost certainly have a shopping list of sorts. However, you are on a limited budget, and won’t be able to draft the best 22 players on your draft board, so you make sacrifices for the greater good. For some people that means waiting until the very end to find a catcher, and for some that means relying on some starting pitchers with upside in the last few rounds. Below are four scenarios and strategies you will likely recognize, and a couple of players that will help you cross something off your list.

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Life After Berkman and Oswalt

Clearly, the Houston Astros believe it’s time to start over. This summer, they dealt arguably their two most important players, Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, and they’re currently 15 games out of first place in the National League Central. They have a less than 1 percent chance of making the playoffs this season.

There’s a small problem with the rebuilding plan, though: their farm system isn’t exactly loaded. Keith Law had them ranked in the bottom three organizations in baseball in that regard last winter.

There’s a good chance that, in the next two seasons, Wandy Rodriguez, Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn will join Oswalt and Berkman on their way out to make room for new blood — and Houston will have pick other players to build the franchise around. Can the core the Astros have already assembled lead them to the playoffs, or possibly a championship? It appears unlikely.

Jason Castro, C

Castro has advanced quickly through the Astros’ system, spending less than two years in the minor leagues; he’s known for his defensive abilities behind the plate, but his offensive potential is underwhelming. He batted .265 with four homers this year at Triple-A, and since being called up he’s posted a .568 OPS with an isolated power of .090. That’s weak. He’s only 23, but his glaring lack of pop makes it unlikely he’ll be more than a solid-average big leaguer.

Getty ImagesThe Astros need J.A. Happ to replicate his 2009 in Philly.

J.A. Happ, SP

The prized pig in the Roy Oswalt trade, Happ is hoping to right the ship that is his early career. After being an extreme control pitcher in prior years, Happ has struggled with getting the ball over the plate recently. (His BB/9 innings this year is 5.94, and that’s alarming.) Without any pitches that really fool batters, Happ won’t have a chance in the world if he can’t find his location again.

With his performance in 2009, Happ helped the Phillies get to the World Series, even if his season looked much better than it really was — his 2.93 ERA last year was fueled largely by an absurd .181 BABIP with runners in scoring position. The Astros are counting on Happ to replicate those 2009 numbers, and he probably never will.

Chris Johnson, 3B

Picked by Houston in the fourth round of the 2006 draft, Johnson has Astros fans drooling after his late-June call-up. Johnson has hit well over .300 since his promotion, but most of his success is built on a shaky foundation of a .411 BABIP. While in the majors, Johnson has been striking out more than the league average hitter (23.3 percent), while walking at a clip that is well below league average (4.2 percent). Without big-time power (career .429 slugging percentage in the minors), it is hard to make that skill set work.

Tommy Manzella, SS

Ever since he was selected in the third round by Houston in the 2005 draft, Manzella has had the reputation of being a slick fielder without much of a bat. He’s always flirted with hitting .300 in the minors, but overall wasn’t much with the bat due to a lack of power and a below-average walk rate. To his credit, Manzella kept a respectable strikeout rate throughout the minors, and even hit line drives at a decent rate.

During his brief big league stint this year, Manzella proved the scouts right when it came to the bat, putting up a wOBA of only .229. Manzella’s already 27, and he’s a utility infielder, at best.

Bud Norris, SP

Houston’s sixth-round pick in 2006, Norris has been impressive in the big leagues. Working with a mid-90s fastball and hard-breaking slider, Norris has struck out more than a batter an inning in just under 170 big league frames.

His control needs to improve a bit over the next few years, because 3.83 BB/9 is a tad high, but his ability to miss bats makes him a possible front-of-the-rotation starter.

Brett Wallace, 1B

Acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays at the deadline, Wallace has been a highly touted hitting prospect since his days at Arizona State. Wallace started out as a power-hitting third baseman, but had to be moved to the other corner due to defensive concerns.

No one ever expected Wallace to be a defensive whiz, but he was supposed to hit. Wallace, who’s 24, posted an .868 OPS at Triple-A Las Vegas this year, and while that looks good on the surface, Vegas is one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the minors, and that number isn’t that impressive for a prospect whose only skill is hitting. Since being promoted to Houston, Wallace has a .471 OPS and is striking out in a third of his plate appearances. If he doesn’t figure things out next year, he doesn’t have much value to a big league team.

The bottom line

You build championship teams through a combination of stars and role players — look at any recent World Series winner for documentation of this — and the Astros currently have the role players, but not the stars. GM Ed Wade is going to have to draft carefully for the next few years, or this rebuild will take a long time. He needs to develop a few star-caliber, quickly-rising-through-the-minors guys out of the draft to complement the players above.

Five Major Disappointments

While everyone is talking about who’s going to make the All-Star team, here are five players we can be sure won’t be spending July 12-14 in Anaheim, unless they’re paying their own way. Starting with Matt Kemp, here are 2010’s biggest disappointments.

Matt Kemp, Dodgers
After signing a two-year extension in the offseason and hobnobbing with a Hollywood hottie, Kemp has put together a poor 2010. After hitting close to .300 last year, Kemp is hitting just .258 with a .316 on-base percentage. And his fielding has been even worse. While UZR may not be the most reliable in small samples, his mark of minus-16.5 is by far the worst of any center fielder in baseball, and it’s not even close.

Chone Figgins, Mariners
Figgins reached base nearly 40 percent of the time last season, but his OBP has dropped down to .337 this year. Some of this may stem from losing his line-drive stroke, but he’s also striking out far too often. Figgins has taken the walk of shame 17.5 percent of the time over his entire career but is striking out five percent more often this season. For a player who doesn’t have power and relies heavily on speed, he needs to put the ball in play a lot more often.

Adam Lind, Blue Jays
Lind made huge strides in 2009 but has regressed to his previous levels of performances. After swinging at about 25 percent of pitches outside of the zone in 2009, Lind is chasing pitches at a 32 percent rate. He is even swinging at more pitches inside the zone and is making far less contact overall. This has led to his strikeout rate rising almost 9 percent compared to last year, and he’s hitting just .204/.265/.344 on the year.

Randy Wolf, Brewers
The Brewers were counting on Wolf to anchor their rotation when they signed him to a three-year, $29.75 million contract this offseason, and he hasn’t performed up to expectations. Wolf is throwing 6 percent more balls compared to last season and is walking batters at nearly twice the rate. The result? A 4.92 ERA.

Trevor Hoffman, Brewers
The fact that the Brewers have two players on this list should partially explain their .447 winning percentage. During Hoffman’s historic career, he has been known for two things: “Hells Bells,” and his changeup. The music still plays whenever he comes in for a save, but the changeup doesn’t trot in with him. Since 2008, Hoffman has lost nearly 4 inches of downward movement on his change. When you can no longer keep hitters off balance with your fastball, losing movement on your most important pitch is a death sentence. The 42-year-old has allowed seven homers in 24 innings, and his days as a closer appear to be finished.

Petco Not Helping Pads

Anyone that has ever been to — or even seen — a game at Petco Park knows that it kills home runs. Opened in 2004, the home of the San Diego Padres consistently ranks as the toughest park in which to hit a home run. While some may see this as a disadvantage, an extreme park factor can be used to a team’s advantage if their front office keeps it in mind while building their roster. And while the Padres are a surprising success this year, it’s not because they’ve built a team catered to their park.

San Diego’s pitchers currently allow the third fewest fly balls of any pitching staff in the majors, at just 33.5 percent of the time. Instead, the Padres’ pitching staff is right up there with Cleveland and St. Louis as one of the more ground ball-heavy staffs in the game. Ground balls, of course, are not subject to the dynamics of a particular stadium nearly as much as fly balls are.

One reason a team might attempt to keep balls out of the air is poor outfield defense. If you don’t have great defenders in the outfield, it makes sense to keep the ball away from them as much as possible. However, according to the fielding metric UZR, the Padres have had the third best defensive outfield this year, posting a mark of plus-12.7 runs so far. While the sample size is small, the Padres are starting three outfielders (Will Venable, Tony Gwynn Jr. and Scott Hairston) with a history of above-average defense, all of whom run well.

Telling a pitcher to induce fly balls is tricky, because you run the risk of giving up more home runs. But since fly balls typically produce the lowest batting average compared to line drives and grounders, and since Petco reduces the risk of homers, the Padres can feel more comfortable than a usual team when balls are flying through the air. Ground balls are good, but for the Padres they may not always be the best option. They may have the most wins in the National League, but it doesn’t mean San Diego is doing everything right. The Friars should try to utilize the vastness of Petco Park, as it could pay dividends in the near future.

The Truth about Aramis Ramirez

One of the big reasons the Chicago Cubs have had success in recent years is third baseman Aramis Ramirez. Ramirez has put up some great seasons ever since he joined the Cubbies in 2003, and has become a key part of their offensive game plan. But this year, he’s hitting .167 with a .234 OBP while slugging .280. For six straight seasons, Aramis has posted a weighted on-base average of .380 or greater (.330 is about league average). This season, he’s posting a meager wOBA of just .237. So what’s wrong with the Cubs slugger?

To begin with, Ramirez’s strikeouts are way up. Last season, he struck out in 14.1 percent of his at-bats (league average is usually around 19 percent), slightly better than the 15.4 percent mark he’s posted over his entire career. This season, Ramirez is taking the walk of shame a whopping 23.1 percent of the time, the highest since his rookie season back in 1998. It is very unusual for a hitter to see such a large increase in strikeout rate from one year to the next.

Delving further into his rising strikeout rate, we can see that Ramirez is actually swinging at fewer pitches this year and making contact less often when he does get the bat off his shoulder. To compound the problem, Ramirez is making less contact on balls inside the strike zone, while getting his bat on the ball more often on pitches outside the strike zone. Last year, he made contact on 88.8 percent of balls in the zone. This year it’s 83.3 percent. And on balls outside the zone, he’s gone from making contact 65.6 percent of the time, to 68.7. Missing hittable pitches, while making contact on pitches off the plate that are not easy to square up, is not a recipe for success.

In essence, the numbers bear out the phenomenon generally known as “pressing.” As a reaction to his slow start, Ramirez is chasing more balls and overswinging at those he thinks he can hit. It’s not working, though, and the Cubs need to do what they can to get their slugger back to his old ways. He knows how to hit — he’s just lost right now.

Why Boston will Finish Third

What would you have said if I had told you before the season began that the Padres would be leading the NL West on April 22? Odds are you would have called me crazy, and justifiably so. But here we are, and that’s because crazy things happen, especially in short time frames.

While what has happened so far can’t be taken as gospel of what will happen over the rest of the season, we can see that some things have shifted. By looking back at preseason projections and applying them to what has already occurred, we can get an updated look at how teams and players may perform this year. To explain the methodology, I’m going to use the Phillies as an example.

In the April 5 edition of ESPN The Magazine, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections predicted that Philadelphia would win about 93 games. They have won 9 of their first 14 games already, so does that mean they are going to win 84 games the rest of the year to bring their total to 93? No. We wouldn’t expect them to play worse the rest of the year just because they got off to a good start.

Our best assumption is that they are still a 93-win team the rest of the way, so we simply take their projected win percentage (.571) and apply it to their remaining games (148), making their updated projection 94 wins. They have added a win to their preseason expected total by playing so well in the first two weeks of the season.

For an updated look at how ZiPS thinks your team will finish the season, here are the updated projected standings through April 20, rounded to the nearest win:

Even though they are currently leading the NL West, the Padres are still projected as the third-worst team in the majors, behind the Blue Jays and Astros. The Jays are also off to a good start (9-7), but keep in mind that they have yet to play the Yankees, Rays or Red Sox.

The Red Sox’s falling into third place was the only major change when comparing the update with the original predictions. For the preseason ZiPS predictions in The Mag, the Red Sox were projected to win the AL East. After their slow start, they are now projected to miss the playoffs. That slow start created a large hole that they now have to dig out of, and with two good teams in the division, it won’t be easy. While Boston’s slow start isn’t reflective of how good the Sox are as a team, their place in the standings may just be “real,” because they now have to play better than their true talent level in order to close the gap. They may be able to do it, but it will now be an upset if the Red Sox make the playoffs.

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.

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 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 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 St. Louis Cardinals Preview

Chris Carpenter, RHP
Adam Wainwright, RHP
Brad Penny, RHP
Kyle Lohse, RHP
Rich Hill, LHP

Closers and Setup
Ryan Franklin, RHP
Jason Motte, RHP

Starting Lineup
Skip Schumaker, 2B
Brendan Ryan, SS
Albert Pujols, 1B
Matt Holliday, LF
Ryan Ludwick, RF
Yadier Molina, C
Colby Rasmus, CF
David Freese, 3B

Player in Decline

Even though he saved 38 games and posted an ERA of 1.92, Ryan Franklin was not that spectacular. His xFIP of 4.27 and BABIP of .269 indicate a turnaround is likely in 2010. He still may pick up saves, but the outstanding ERA will not return.

Player on the Rise

Colby Rasmus was a very effective base stealer in the minors, but swiped only three bags last season. His average, power numbers, and steals should all increase this year.

Top 5 Fantasy Players
Albert Pujols – Elite
Matt Holliday – Elite
Adam Wainwright – Elite
Chris Carpenter – Elite
Ryan Ludwick – Average

Top 10 Prospects
1. Shelby Miller, RHP
2. Lance Lynn, RHP
3. Jaime Garcia, LHP
4. Daryl Jones, OF
5. Allen Craig, 3B
6. Eduardo Sanchez, RHP
7. Dan Descalso, IF
8. Adam Reifer, RHP
9. David Freese, 3B
10. Robert Stock, C

Overall Team Outlook: After being a trendy pick to win the National League crown, the Cardinals faltered early in the playoffs. However, 2009 was the first playoff trip since 2006, and with building blocks in place, the club will look to continue that streak.

The Starting Rotation: The Cardinals rotation features two Cy Young contenders on top of their rotation in Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter. Wainwright sports an outstanding curveball and is working towards improving his sinking fastball. Carpenter has long been an ace-caliber pitcher, but has never stayed healthy long enough to be reliable. Newcomer Brad Penny will be the No. 3 starter this year. After being released by the Red Sox, Penny returned to the NL last year and showed that he can be a big-time pitcher. He throws a nice fastball and, if he can stay healthy, he should provide adequate output for the Cards. Kyle Lohse will help anchor the back of the rotation and is nothing to get excited about. Battling for the fifth spot will be reclamation project Rich Hill, along with Mitchell Boggs and a host of others. Hill is on a minor league deal, and should get the first shot if Dave Duncan can work his magic.

The Bullpen: As with any Tony LaRussa club, the Cardinals bullpen could be defined as a “mess.” Ryan Franklin was the closer last season and surprised everyone with a superb season. However, the advanced statistics show that he was extremely lucky, so projections for 2010 are way down. Other options for the Cards include flamethrower Jason Motte, who blew all of his 2009 save chances, and Kyle McClellan, who will need to lower his walk rate to stay successful.

The Starting Lineup: The Cardinals lineup is filled with absolute studs, as well as some question marks. Matt Holliday, Albert Pujols, and Ryan Ludwick are all big, right-handed bats that will occupy the middle of the order in St. Louis. Center fielder Colby Rasmus will have full control of his spot with the departure of Rick Ankiel. The left side of the infield is a big question mark, with rookie David Freese stepping in as the third baseman. Freese had some great seasons in the minors and playing in a good lineup will help him. Brendan Ryan, moustache and all, will be returning as the everyday shortstop, and should provide some nice cheap steals. Skip Schumaker will be back for his second full season at second base, but may have to split time with Julio Lugo. Lugo, acquired from the Red Sox late last year, played well for the Cardinals in his brief time with the team and could also fight Ryan for playing time at short. Behind the plate it is another year of “Name that Molina,” with Yadier Molina anchoring the defense. While he may not add anything special at the plate, the Cardinals rely on him to not hurt them on offense and to drive in runs whenever he can.

The Bench: The previously mentioned Lugo will be the first player off the bench for the Cards, but after that it remains a mystery. Veteran catcher Jason LaRue could see some playing time should Molina become run down or injured, but will not be a big part of the Cardinals’ plans. Infielder Tyler Greene will also be on the roster, but the back-up outfield spots are up for grabs.