Top Picks

It’s mid February, which means fantasy baseball is upon us. This is sort of a holy period for me, a time when – in gearing up for coming drafts – I develop the ability to name from memory the starting lineups of every team in the majors, and devote an altogether too large percentage of my time to mentally ranking players by position and overall value. In keeping with that, I figured this would be a good time to select the best picks for each position on the diamond, as well as some potential rookies to watch. Anyone who’s in a league with me, please stop reading now.
Top Pick: Victor Martinez, Cleveland Indians
Martinez is the best of a crop of decent young catchers who will have full-time jobs in the majors this year – a list that includes Joe Mauer, Ryan Doumit, John Buck, and Brian McCann. In his second full year in the majors, Martinez hit .305/.378/.475, posting the second best OPS among all MLB Catchers (only three points behind Jason Varitek), and the best overall OPS+, at 132. Martinez, only two weeks younger than I am (27), is coming into his prime, and stands to improve over the next couple years. He could develop into a 25-30 HR threat, hits for solid average, and has a good batting eye; he’s also gained a reputation as a capable if not flashy defensive backstop. He and Joe Mauer will be the class of the position over the next three or four years, and unless Mauer’s power develops significantly, Martinez should remain the top pick for quite some time. Apologies to Jason Varitek, Joe Mauer, and Jorge Posada.
Possible Impact Rookie: Kenji Johjima, Seattle Mariners
Johjima, 30, signed with the Mariners from the Fukuoka Hawks this offseason. He was an outstanding offensive catcher in Japan, with a career OPS of .877, and a 2005 OPS of .938. He has what appears to be significant power, and at 30 likely still has a couple years of his prime left. If he’s able to adjust to MLB pitching – both as a hitter and as a catcher – quickly, he could be a top 10 or even top 5 catcher this season.
First Base
Top Pick: Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals
This is hardly a shock. Pujols has been the most consistently excellent producer in the majors since breaking into the league in 2001, and could easily be a 5-time MVP – one for each season he’s spent in the majors. He has been so consistent that simply penciling in a line of .320/.420/.600 with 40 homers and 120 RBI wouldn’t be out of the question. In addition to being the best 1B on the board, he could very easily be the single best player on the board; only Alex Rodriguez will take more than a handful of #1 picks away from him. Apologies to: Derrek Lee, Mark Teixeira (Thanks, Matt), Todd Helton, and Carlos Delgado.
Possible Impact Rookie: Prince Fielder, Milwaukee Brewers
Lyle Overbay was shipped off to Toronto this offseason to make room for Fielder, possibly the purest power prospect in the majors. He’s huge, he’s slow, and he hits the ball a very very very long distance when he makes contact – which isn’t very frequently. Still, unless pitchers are able to find a major hole in his swing, he should make an immediate impression, and could be a key part of a surprise Brewers run at the wild card in 2006. 35 HR are not out of the question.
Second Base
Top Pick: Chase Utley, Philadelphia Phillies
Maybe a surprising pick to some, but with Brian Roberts questionable for the start of the season in Baltimore and Alfonso Soriano struggling through an existential crisis in DC, Utley’s overshadowed 2005 campaign starts to look like a blueprint for a top 2B pick in 2006. Without anyone really noticing, Utley put up a .940 OPS at age 26, with 28 HR from the 4 spot and a healthy .376 OBP to compliment a .291 BA. Interestingly, despite playing in one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in the majors, Utley’s home-road splits are very nearly identical, suggesting that his numbers are natual rather than skewed by his home field. He’s the real deal, and his anonymity in 2005 may signal his availability as a middle-round steal this year. Apologies to: Brian Roberts, Alfonso Soriano.
Possible Impact Rookie: Ian Kinsler, Texas Rangers
The trade of Alfonso Soriano was an easier decision to make after Kinsler’s 2005 season in AAA Oklahoma, where he hit .274/.348/.464 with 23 HR at age 22/23. Though he still has room – and time – to develop, he’s likely ready for the bigs; if that development comes quickly, he could be an impact 2B, especially playing half his games at cozy Ameriquest.
Third Base
Top Pick: Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees
This pick has been a total lock for the past couple years, but this year the field is a bit muddier, with the arrival of David Wright and the possible re-conversion of Miguel Cabrera to 3B. A-Rod will still likely outperform both, but the gap is closing. A-Rod had an MVP season last year, both in quality and in hardware, and there’s no reason to believe that he’ll do anything differently this year. No matter what else might be said of him, he is one of the most gifted players ever to step onto a major league diamond, and he only turned 30 this past July. As with Pujols, count on a line of .300/.400/.600, and 40-45 HR. From the 3B slot, that’s as close to pure gold as you can find. He’s still my top pick on the board. Apologies to: David Wright, Miguel Cabrera (?), Eric Chavez.
Possible Impact Rookie: Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals
Zimmerman, a 2005 draftee, was the recipient of a stunning promotion from AA late in 2005, after only 250 minor league AB’s. Jim Bowden famously defended the decision in his ill-considered weekly newspaper column, but as most people waited for Zimmerman to fail spectacularly, a funny thing happened: he was awesome. Just plain awesome. In just 20 games – 58 AB’s – Zimmerman hit .397/.419/.569 for a 988 OPS. There are, of course, some significant warning signs: his miniscule walk rate, for one, and the lack of HR power (that .569 SLG was accomplished without a single HR, a fairly amazing feat accomplished primarily by the fact that of his 23 big league hits, half were doubles).
Top Pick: Miguel Tejada, Baltimore Orioles
No surprise here. Despite his offseason woes, Tejada has fully emerged from the shadow of the former “Big Three” – two of whom have switched positions over the last three years – to become the marquee SS in Major League Baseball. A clear top 5 pick overall, Tejada should once again put up All-Star numbers, no matter how poorly the team around him performs. He may never again approach his freakish 150 RBIs from the 2004 season, but he’s still a lock for a .300/.350/.500+ season with 25-30 HR and 100 RBI. Apologies to: Michael Young, Derek Jeter, Rafael Furcal.
Possible Impact Rookie: Brandon Wood, Los Angeles Angels
The Angels are deeply regretting the contract they tendered to Orlando Cabrera in the offseason; no amount of cool handshakes can make up for a .257/.309/.365 line. Wood’s 2005 season, by contrast, was a revelation; he absolutely obliterated High A Rancho Cucamonga, with a stunning .321/.383/..672 campaign in which he hit 43 homers. That’s forty-three. He jumped directly to AAA at age 20, and a hot start from him, combined with a lousy start by Cabrera, could usher in a major change for the Angels’ infield.
Top Picks: Vladimir Guerrero, Los Angeles Angels; Manny Ramirez, Boston Red Sox; Miguel Cabrera, Florida Marlins
In most fantasy leagues, OF’s are grouped together rather than separated by LF, CF, and RF. That means that in general, CF’s are less useful in fantasy, and that’s reflected here, with 2 RF’s and 1 LF. Guerrero may still be the single scariest – if not the very best – player in the majors; I still maintain that no one hits the ball harder, and the fact that you simply never know what he’ll swing at means that you can rarely predict an at-bat. That lack of discipline has never hurt him; he’s a perennial MVP candidate, always hits for high average and high slugging, and has single-handedly driven the Angels’ offense for two years.
Manny, we know all about; he may have had a down season in 2005, but it was still among the 5 best offensive seasons in the majors. There’s no reason to expect that to change in 2006, and chances are that his odd slide vs. LHP will reverse itself and pick his OPS back up over 1.000. He’s reaching a point where age could become a factor, but if it impacts him at all, it won’t be enough to justify a draft any later than 8th or 9th overall.
Cabrera’s the newcomer here; described as a young Manny, he’s already putting up eye-boggling numbers at age 23 and could emerge as the best offensive player in the game over the next couple years. A shift to 3B – discussed this offseason with the extreme turnover in the Marlins organization – would significantly upgrade his value, but he’ll remain eligible in the OF. Another obvious late-first round pick, it’s scary to imagine that a guy who hit .323/.385/.561 still has 3 years until the magic 27 season. He will likely improve this year, as difficult to believe as that may be. Apologies to: Gary Sheffield, Ichiro Suzuki, Carl Crawford, Barry Bonds
Possible Impact Rookies: Delmon Young, Tampa Bay Devil Rays; Jeremy Hermida, Florida Marlins
The #1 and #3 prospects in the game, respectively, according to the Baseball Prospectus. Young is as close to a can’t miss prospect as you can get, and has terrified minor league pitching to the tune of .317/370/.531 over two seasons. in 228 AB’s in AAA Durham – at age 20 – he hit .285/.303/.447 – maybe not eye popping totals, but for a 20 year old in the IL, frighteningly good. In 330 AB’s before that in AA Montgomery, Young hit .336/.386/.582 with 20 HR; if the Rays need OF help early – and chances are they will, given Rocco Baldelli’s frequent health issues and Joey Gathright’s inability to do much else but run really really fast – Young will get a chance, and will likely stick. He should be a star for years.
Hermida made himself forever a footnote when he became only the second player in history to hit a grand slam in his first big league AB, but he stands to improve on that legacy significantly in his rookie season. Hermida split 2005 between High A Jupiter, AA Carolina, and Florida; his numbers actually improved at each stop. In 41 AB’s in the bigs, Hermida hit .293/.383/.634, with 4 HR. In 386 AB’s at Carolina, he hit .293/.457/.518 with 29 HR. He’s the real deal, and the firebombing of the Marlins roster means he’ll have a steady big league job at age 22 this year.
Designated Hitter
Top Pick: David Ortiz, Boston Red Sox
This might be the toughest pick of them all. David Ortiz is a god, but there’s a guy in Cleveland who put up numbers that rival Papi’s; if Travis Hafner hadn’t missed a month with a freak injury, that two-way MVP race might have been a three-way race, and the Chicago White Sox might not be World Champions right now. But, David Ortiz remains David Ortiz: the destroyer, the clutch, the nightmare of pitchers everywhere. At 30, he’s in his prime, and coming off a .300/.397/.604 (1.001 OPS) season with 47 HR. He’s improved every year since becoing an MLB regular, and while it’s impossible to expet him to improve further, a .980 OPS seems perfectly within reason. Apologies to: Travis Hafner, Frank Thomas, Jim Thome.
Possible Impact Rookies: None.
Starting Pitchers
Top Picks: Johan Santana, Minnesota Twins; Roy Halladay, Toronto Blue Jays; Rich Harden, Oakland A’s
Johan Santana won a Cy Young award in 2004, and likely should have won one in 2005 as well. He is, simply put, baseball’s best pitcher; at age 27, he has already put together 4 full seasons at the MLB level, including 2.5 as a starter, in which he’s consistently posted ERA+ at or above the 150 mark, striking out over a batter an inning, emerging as a workhorse and exhibiting excellent control. He’s posted a WHIP beloew 1.00 for two straight years. He should be the only pitcher taken in the first round, and he’s well worth it.
Roy Halladay might slip in drafting due to injury ‘concerns’, having missed significant sections of the last two seasons. What would be overlooked in that case is the freak nature of Halladay’s 2005 injury, a line drive to the shin the fractured his tibia and held him out for the rest of the season. Halladay was, by the All-Star break, in line for his second Cy Young, with a 12-4 record, 2.41 ERA, and 108 K’s in 142 innings. Halladay may not put up the amazing strikeout totals normally associated with a big, hard-throwing ace, but he couples his solid K rate with an excellent GB/FB ratio (2.60 in 2005). He has outstanding control. The one potential warning sign for Halladay is the weakening of Toronto’s infield defense this season, but the loss of Orlando Hudson at 2B likely won’t impact Doc’s numbers too severely. He’s still a very safe anchor for a fantasy staff.
Harden’s a new name on this list, but at 24, he’s on the verge of superstardom – as long as he stays healthy. In 128 innings in 2005, Harden was a revelation; he struck out 121 on his way to a 2.53 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP – only above the 1.00 mark dure to a high walk rate that remains his only real weakness as a pitcher. Harden came within 5 outs of a perfect game this summer, before ending his season early due to injury. Had he pitched a full season, it’s entirely possible that the A’s, rather than the Los Angeles Angels, would have found themselves beating the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs.
Apologies to: Dontrelle Willis, Chris Carpenter, Jake Peavy, Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt, Pedro Martinez.
Possible Impact Rookies: Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants; Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners
Matt Cain, a rookie out of the Giants organization, rose quickly through their system after being drafted in 2002, apparently (and bizarrely) at the age of 17. Now 20, he emerged late in the season as a promising young arm on a team chalk full of other people’s grandparents (his catcher, Mike Matheny, was probably playing Babe Ruth ball somewhere the day Cain was born). Though his AAA numbers weren’t exactly stellar in 2005 – 10-5 with a 4.39 ERA in 146 innings – he did K 176; his walk rate was too high, too, at 73. But the Giants gave him a late-season call-up, and he was exceptional over 7 games and 46 innings, posting a 2.33 ERA with 30 K’s, while walking 19. At 20, Cain has a lot of room to improve, and barring injury, he likely will. The Giants don’t have a lot of SP options, so it’s likely that Cain will open the season in san Francisco; if he’s able to cut down on that walk rate, he could put up some impressive numbers for a 21 year old.
Felix Hernandez is actually even younger than Cain – he turns 20 this April. Hernandez has been known throughout the scouting world for a couple of years, given the nickname “King Felix” for his status as the most untouchable of pitching prospects. Though the Mariners tried to slow his rapid ascent through the system, his 2005 season at AAA Tacoma – 88 innings of 2.25 ERA, 100 K ball – made it impossible. He was in the majors by early August, and proceeded to decimate what he saw of Major League hitting. Over 85 IP, he struck out 77 batters and walked 23, to the tune of a 2.67 ERA and a WHIP a hair below 1.00. The only worry with King Felix is injury. If the Mariners are careful with him – and given that he’s essentially their franchise for the next ten years, they damned well better be – he could become a top 15 pitching pick this season, and stay on that list – probably high on that list – for many seasons to come.
Relief Pitcher
Top Pick: Huston Street, Oakland A’s
No one expected that Huston Street, a 2004 draftee, would have a chance to close quite as quickly as he did. But when Oakland closer Octavio Dotel went down with an elbow injury early in the season, Street stepped in and became the best closer in the AL, and quite possibly in the majors. His 23 saves didn’t top the list, but he wasn’t collecting them over a full season. What are most impressive are his actual pitching stats: 79 IP, 72 K’s, 26 walks, and an ERA of 1.72, with a WHIP just barely over 1. At 22, he’s entering his second full year in the majors, and stands to improve as he begins the year with job stability and confidence. The rigors of a full season clearly caught up with Street in September of last year; this year he knows better what it takes to play a full season at full strength, and should even out both his early season jitters and his late season fade. Apologies to: Brad Lidge, Mariano Rivera, Billy Wagner, Francisco Rodriguez.
Possible Impact Rookie: Craig Hansen, Boston Red Sox
Craig Hansen was the third member of the draft class of 2005 to reach the majors, behind Atlanta RP Joey Devine and Nationals 3B Ryan Zimmerman. He was stellar in his first appearance, before appearing to tire and/or lose confidence in subsequent games. His odd season – half a year closing for St. Johns, then the draft and a month off, followed by a rapid ascent through three levels of the Sox system (including Boston) likely caught up with him. Hansen will almost certainly open the 2006 season in AAA Pawtucket, but is one of the first names on the minor-league depth chart. If Keith Foulke’s struggles continue, and if the sox have trouble finding a suitable closer candidate, Hansen will get his share of opportunities. He is Boston’s closer of the future, and if only a few things break down ahead of him, the future could begin in June or July.
So, that’s it. Enjoy, and let me know if you disagree with any of these picks.

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