Tuesday, March 31, 2009

No. 756 in the Warm and Fuzzy World of Barry Lamar Bonds

I have no illusions that this will be a popular article. People will not react positively to it or will flat-out ignore it and that's cool—I'm well aware that Barry Bonds is persona non grata as far as the general public is concerned.

For good reason.

The guy is a Class-A prick by all accounts and there are just too many to dismiss them all as suspicious hearsay.

Bonds is the perfect example of what happens when a (presumably) spoiled and pampered child matures, but in body only. The vast majority of the blame is on Barry, but some of the figurative blood is on our hands—on our culture's hero-worship of gifted athletes from high school onward in Barry's day and much earlier now.

If you think guys like Barry were/are bad, just wait for the 10- to 12-year-olds who are being slobbered upon today to arrive in the professional ranks tomorrow. But that's a story for another time.

A second lesson Bonds' exemplar teaches is what happens when a ballplayer takes the very accurate description of baseball as a team game assembled from individual confrontations and carries it to a deleterious extreme.

Barry Bonds truly believed and made himself an island in a clubhouse that should function as a cohesive unit. He was arguably good enough to compensate for the damage he did in this regard, but Bonds did damage.

Make no mistake about it.

Baseball is not as discrete as it looks—there are subtle threads that connect the batter to the baserunner to the fielders to the pitcher and they are constantly being adjusted. Except when Barry was out there—ironically, in this regard, he came no-strings-attached (hahaha, wordplay).

There are many other negative things you can say about Barry Bonds, the least of which is his ongoing performance-enhancing drug issues.

Each new name has proven and will continue to prove the PED problem cannot be used to smear one individual from this era.

Whether it be Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Eric Gagne, Brian Roberts, Gary Sheffield, Alex Rodriguez, Rick Ankiel, Jason Grimsley, Miguel Tejada, Andy Pettitte, Jason Giambi, Ken Caminiti, Wally Joyner, Jack Cust, Ryan Franklin, Chuck Knoblauch, Paul Lo Duca, Kevin Brown, or any other of the hundreds of users (either admitted, alleged, or undiscovered).

It's all or nothing, baby.

Still, PED-use is not a badge of honor yet it's firmly affixed to Barry's over-inflated chest. That it doesn't even rank as one of the reasons to be righteously disgusted by the guy says more than you need to know about just how flawed the man is.

But this is about how I see Barry. And I'm a die-hard San Francisco Giants fan who couldn't care less about the personal lives or habits of celebrities/pro athletes.

Honestly, take that TMZ crap, People magazine, all those behind-the-scenes shows about athletes on ESPN, MTV Cribs, etc. and sweep 'em up into a pile. Then nuke the entire thing—the world would be an infinitely healthier, wealthier, and wiser place.

Really though, it's about rooting for the team that Bonds carried to contention almost single-handedly—even the years with more talent around him in the lineup (like 1993 and 1997-2002) saw Barry do most of the heavy lifting. Considering how average many of those pitching staffs were, there was a lot of lifting to do.

So I've always loved the guy. To me, he is only Barry Bonds the great San Francisco Giant—he is not Barry Bonds the odious off-field personality. It's a fine and convenient line, I know.

But it allows me to be one of the few people who gets to really savor the New and Technologically Improved Home Run King. More specifically, it allows me to be one of the few people who gets to appreciate just how special No. 756 was.

Major League Baseball, its fans, and basically the entire baseball-watching world has ignored Bonds' record-breaking big fly from the moment it cleared the fence. Again, I've got no problem with this—I'm not saying everyone should appreciate it.

I'm just emphasizing how few people really look at it closely enough to realize how perfect it was.

And it was perfect. P-E-R-F-E-C-T...

1. No. 756 came at home in Pac Bell Park.

Bonds had already become public enemy numero uno in 2007 so this was the only place the big bomb would've played well. Plus, Pac Bell is the Park that Barry Built regardless of what Peter McGowan wants you to believe.

Most SF fans love him and we went crazy when he finally hit the milestone.

2. It came on a 3-2 pitch.

The most incredible thing about the chemically-enhanced Barry was how he never seemed concerned with the count. It seemed like he squared EVERYTHING up on the screws regardless of whether it was 0-2 dookie or a 3-1 cripple fastball (which he never saw).

Plus 3-2 is just a cool count because you know something will happen and that's the way it was with Barry Bonds—you didn't miss his at-bats because you knew something was going to happen.

3. It was a solo shot.

Barry Bonds redefined how the opposition handles supremely dangerous hitters in watered-down lineups. He simply did not see pitches to hit with men on base if the hurler could help it. Consequently, it seemed like all of Bonds' long balls came with the sacks empty—that's the only time pitchers dared challenge him.

Who says ballplayers are dumb?

4. No. 756 put the Giants ahead 5-4.

It wouldn't surprise me if 90 percent of Barry's homers put the Giants ahead, pulled them even, or brought them to within a run. Obviously, the proportion isn't close to that so I would be very surprised, but you get my point—most of his dongs seemed to be crucial to the team's ultimate success.

Barry leaves a wide swath of irony wherever he goes.

5. Barry crushed that ball.

This is perhaps the greatest tragedy of MLB trying to move passed the moment as quickly as possible (again, not a bad/unfair decision) because you don't see the shot replayed very often. Well, I've got it saved for posterity on my TiVo (or until it gets reset) so all I have to do is hit play to watch it whenever I want.

Trust me, Bonds got every little bit of that ball. He hit it well out to the deepest part of Pac Bell, I'm talking WAY out of Triples Alley. Even the heftiest of hefty hitters rarely challenges this particular dimension.

If you're wondering how Benjie Molina managed to record a three-bagger in 2007, I give you Triples Alley. And No. 756 sailed right over it.

Furthermore, everyone knew it was gone from the minute it left the bat.

It was a HUGE fly with the all-important and melodious click of bat on ball that's really the pill saying, "Adios, I'm gone for good."

6. The Giants ended up losing the game in extra innings.

Individual excellence resulting in eventual team failure—the story of Barry's professional career, especially in San Francisco. He could take his team through many promised lands, but he couldn't ever goad them into The Promised Land.

Bonds came close in 2002 and would've been the World Series Most Valuable Player had Dusty Baker not wrestled defeat from the jaws of victory in Game Six. But baseball ain't horseshoes and it ain't hand grenades.

His 756th home run was incredible for the particular physical feat, for what the single homer announced about Barry's cumulative achievements, and because it embodied almost every element of his superlative career—warts and all.

Is Barry Bonds a wonderful human-being?

I don't know the man, so I won't answer definitively. But the signs point to 'No' and they're pretty tough to argue.

But, even if true, that just places Bonds on a very long list of very flawed individuals who have been blessed with incredible gifts—gifts that bring them attention, scrutiny, and pressure the likes of which most of us will never know.

Of course, this doesn't excuse Barry's behavior, attitude, or general treatment of other people in the slightest. And it's on him that so many people who love the game of baseball don't get to appreciate such a quintessential moment.

Instead, they feel obliged to acknowledge it if forced to do so and then to return to a world where it doesn't exist, which is exactly how most in baseball weathered the man himself. In a way, that makes the monumental shot even more perfect.

It sesms the only thing missing was LA.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Forget Firing Robert Powell, Make Him Suit Up for the Lions

One of the more surreal stories the National Football League has ever spawned is developing in Dallas, Texas.

Considering all the chaos issuing forth from the NFL on an annual basis, that's saying something. It's so bizarre on so many levels, it's pushing even the memory of Terrell Owens to the back of the football world's mind despite taking place in the city that just gave him the boot (don't think TO hasn't noticed).

I'm glad I'm not Robert Powell in the wake of this story. Because I suspect he'll get exactly what he deserves and it shan't be pretty.

It seems Ryan Moats wasn't the first NFL player to be held at the mercy of this infant on a power trip. Although Zack Thomas wasn't the one cuffed and arrested for making an illegal u-turn, his wife is a close proxy and, in several instances, the law views one spouse as an extension of the other so the stretch is not a huge one.

There are several ways to interpret this latest news:

(1) Powell has a personal vendetta against pro football players because the odds of two people with direct connections to the League being his random victims are too small.

(2) Powell is a racist bigot—Maritza Thomas is Latin American. The Dallas Morning News calls her "Hispanic," but I thought that's a no-no. Whatever, I'm not really politically correct anyway since I don't care what race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc. a person identifies as—it's all cool with me as long as you don't force it down my throat.

The point is Maritza Thomas ain't white and neither are Ryan Moats nor the occupants of his truck. Robert Powell is.

(3) Powell is simply a perfect example of one abhorrent cop splashing mud all over the good shields of his fellow officers—drunk with the ripples he can send through his little pond.

If you ask me, I say it's No. 3.

That both Maritza Thomas and Ryan Moats happen to be connected to the millionaire-celebrity lifestyle of the NFL has to be mere coincidence. It's a crazy one to be sure—one level of surreality—but life is full of crazy coincidences.

My freshmen year in college, I happened to be put in the same dorm as a kid I used to trade Star Wars action figures with back in preschool. I had absolutely no connection to him in the 10+ years since then because we went to different kindergartens and then my family moved to San Francisco.

Plus, I only ran across his name looking through the facebook (the real thing before it was a cyberspace phenomenon) for cute freshmen girls. Otherwise, I would've never known he was there because of the way Stanford segments some of its larger dorms.

And that's one example—I'm sure other people have far more impressive examples.

The racism angle is, frankly, plausible. And this is coming from someone who loathes the race card.

Given the context, it's at least reasonable to argue this is another crazy cracker, good ol' boy from Texas going around and exploiting minor transgressions to their fullest extent under the letter of the law. Just to screw with minorities and establish an illusory dominance over them.

I lived in Austin for a year.

The capital is almost without a doubt the most liberal city in the Lone Star state, or it was in 2001 (admittedly, that's a pretty long time so things may have changed). Even so, I'd here n****r dropped in casual conversation on what seemed like a daily basis. Not just by young kids and bitter senior citizens, and in no way that could be construed as harmless or innocent.

In addition, the State was executing people like crazy. Most of whom were people of color and most of the crimes were not of the incredibly grotesque nature for which liberal use of the death penalty should be reserved.

So it's plausible, but the same coincidence rationale applies and with ever more force.

The number of non-white people in Dallas is obviously and exponentially larger than the number of people directly connected to the NFL or some other approximation. Furthermore, I have no real idea what the racial atmosphere is like in Dallas or Texas today.

My first-hand experience is from another city and damn near a decade ago. I'll give Texas the benefit of the doubt and extend it to Robert Powell via the State's implicit endorsement of him.

More importantly, what makes the interpretation of the episodes a no-brainer for me is we've all seen these kinds of authority figures.

Whether it's a cop in your own city, a security guard at some mall, some yard duty at a high school, a junior officer in your company, whatever. They're people who crave power and abuse whatever little bit of it they have.

Especially against those he/she sees as the biggest threats. And a control freak like Powell would logically feel most threatened by those who aren't intimidated by his pseudo-power. It's clear that, under the circumstances, the Moats entourage wasn't intimidated.

And it's not a stretch that the wife of an NFL superstar might exude an entitled, overly-aggressive attitude. Bingo, out come the handcuffs.

Robert Powell may be jealous of anyone with money and glamour. He may be a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan. Who knows? I certainly do not.

I just think the law of probability favors something we've all personally-experienced backed by logical inference rather than reasonable-though-less-likely alternatives that would cause much more of a firestorm.

Unfortunately, some people like to inject as much incendiary scandal into an episode as possible and exploit mere coincidence to do so. But it's just wrong to assign causal relationships between things on such meager data as a sample set of two.

So, as paradigms of journalistic integrity like ESPN await further "progress" with salivating anticipation, I'm taking everything with a grain of salt because the most likely story is the one that will move the least ink.

Which means it's probably the one that's gonna get the least attention.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Joe Montana Vs. Steve Young—A Public Service Announcement for Peyton Manning Homers

If you've been with Bleacher Report for a month, you're well aware of how damn tiresome the debate over Tom Brady and Peyton Manning has become.

Fools around the country are watching the sands slipping through the hourglass with increasing anxiety, our clocks have already leapt ahead, and you STILL see a flippin' article dissecting the two NFL stars on a weekly basis.

It's been almost two full months since the season ended and Tom Brady played one quarter! Yet they come out like clockwork—you'll probably see another after this is published.

The great majority come from Manning homers because, well, they're the only ones laboring under the misconception the question is close and worthy of incessant badgering.

Clearly, I'm not in Peyton's camp so this won't directly be about the current incarnation of a very old argument. If I allow myself to point out how easily Tom Brady outranks Peyton Manning one more time, even I'm gonna start hating Tom Terrific.

Either that or I'll have to file a restraining order on his behalf myself.

Nope, I'm gonna try to put a stake in the issue once and for all by analogizing to the version of the "debate" that finally sledgehammered enlightenment through my thick skull. After I handle this hot potato, I'll be taking down the Middle East hostilities.

Stay tuned.

The reason Brady versus Manning was a dead horse from blow one is because it's just an old question with new clothes. And the question's been answered. In fact, there's probably a very good chance all of the above applied with equivalent accuracy to my idea of the original argument—Joe Montana versus Steve Young.

I don't have a good sense of football history, but, even in the last decade of the 20th Century, novelty was dead.

I'm sure there were two quarterbacks from National Football League antiquity who played the roles of The Winner and The Stat Guy to some acclaim prior to Joe's and Steve's virtuoso performances.

Although I caught some of Joe Cool's best performances up close and personally, I was there for the entirety of the Stormin' Mormon's stampede through the NFL. From his hostile takeover in SF right until Aeneas Williams' brutality ended his career.

When I was a teenager, Steve had already assumed the mantle of San Francisco 49er starting QB from Joe. In the wake of this momentous, yet figurative upheaval in the Bay Area (a necessary qualifier since we get so many of the literal variety), Montana and Young supporters threatened to divide a once-united republic of Niner faithful.

I was and still am a fervent Steve Young guy. The only difference is, back then, I would go to the mattresses with anyone who argued against him as the superior signal-caller of the two.

He is and will always be my favorite QB of all-time. But these days, I realize he will be inferior to Joe Cool with equal permanency.

And that's because Steve Young was not cool. If he wasn't incredibly blessed with natural athletic ability, he never would've been mistaken as such.

The dude is a nerd and a weirdo, and neither of those things can be explained purely by his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (although that certainly contributes). More pertinent, however, is that his poise couldn't match Montana's when the bright lights powered up.

Young was by no means a choker, but his postseason record was 8-6 in games where he attempted more than 15 passes. He has a Super Bowl ring, a Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award, and some of his single-game performances in football's second season defy comprehension (sound familiar?).

Unfortunately for my man Steve, Montana's mark using the same condition is 16-7 with the loss on January 9, 1988 to the Minnesota Vikings counting against both men. Putting further distance between the two all-time greats are Joe's four Super Bowl rings and his incredible ability to find a new level of brilliance apart from his regular season exploits under the heat of the football-watching world's stare (again, sound familiar?).

With the two side-by-side, Steve's body of work gets fugly. All the more so when you look closely at his legacy.

It will always include his amazing day behind center in Super Bowl XXIX among its loudest moments. But just as memorable are the Niners' notorious struggles with the Dallas Cowboys' Triplets and Brett Favre's Green Bay Packers under Young's stewardship.

Is that fair? Absolutely not.

Those 'pokes stand tall in a group of the NFL's best teams of all-time. They featured Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman, Alvin Harper, Jay Novacek, Daryl Johnston, Nate Newton, Larry Allen, Charles Haley, Erik Williams, Mark Tuinei, Mark Stepnoski, and Ken Norton Jr. That's off the top of my head.

The Packers weren't quite as loaded, but they had a better QB and a more balanced team with Reggie White anchoring the other side of the ball.

On the other hand, Montana obviously faced some rugged competition and he had less talent around him than Young. Much is made of Jerry Rice only being around for two of Montana's four championships, but other pieces were inferior to Young's as well.

Still, Joe didn't have to face ferocity like the Cowboys of the 90s or the Packers of the same decade with equal regularity (although the Chicago Bears were pretty good based on defense alone).

In truth, none of that really matters because football is the ultimate team game and the quarterback has always been/will always be considered the leader of his team. He is expected to deliver wins—by hook or by crook and against whatever caliber of competition—because they are the only thing that has ever mattered to true football Illuminati.

When his team wins, a QB gets the lion's share of glory. When it loses, he gets the same portion of blame. Such is the nature of being a leader in any capacity—you take responsibility for a unit's ultimate success or failure.

Without qualification. Any effort to do so compromises your ability to lead and your right to do so.

Furthermore, the NFL is not like Major League Baseball where individual success evolves almost independently of the team's due to its discrete nature. Baseball is said to be a team game assembled from distinctly individual confrontations and anyone who has watched or played knows this is an appropriate description.

Nonetheless, the most valuable players on an annual basis usually come from contenders—thus paying lip service to the idea that the most important contributions are those to winners. Even in baseball.

The premium placed on contribution to ultimate team success is infinitely higher in the NFL.

In pro football—any way you slice it, any way you dice it, using any statistical analysis made to date—a win will always be a win and a loss will always be a loss. Nothing else matters except whether it was a playoff or regular season W.

The postseason is where the best of the best are born, then proven via baptism by fire. And Steve Young's teams lost many of those most critical baptisms—that is the reality.

You can try to parse out blame and lay it at the feet of the defense or fumbles by other players or whatever. You can point out how individually sublime Young was, even in defeat. There is some truth to it and I would love to back the theory—it just doesn't work.

Believe me, I spent a good portion of my more idealistic days trying to force the issue. No joy.

Take the time-tested and specious argument about the defense.

There will be exceptions to the rule as there are with every one, but you usually can't point to a defense and say it's better because of those numbers applied from this angle. Again, football doesn't work that way.

How can you definitively prove that Montana's defense was better than Young's without reference to the quarterback?

How can you prove, beyond the doubt created by three extra championships, that Montana wasn't one of the primary reasons his defenses performed better? After all, if I'm getting nice long rests on the sideline while my quarterback chews up time and yardage, I'm going to be a better player when I get back on the field.

I'm not saying this is necessarily the case with Montana and Young (or Brady and Manning by analogy of The Winner vs. The Stat Guy). What I am saying is the complex interplay between all sides of a football team are far too hard to separate and accurately analyze with any of the current metrics.

Maybe ever.

There are literally thousands of variations similar to the link between QBs and the defense.

Homers will always try to exploit them and that is their right afforded by the same complexities. They will invent hypotheticals and shiny statistical approaches tailored to deliver a favorable verdict for their guy—that's precisely what I did for Steve Young.

But football is no more a game of what-ifs than it is one where true value is reflected by individual achievement. In this regard, football is no different than any other sport. Or area of life for that matter.

It doesn't matter what might've or could've happened because what might've or could've happened DID NOT happen.

Ryan Leaf might've been the best NFL QB of all-time if scenario A shook out rather than what did. Bo Jackson might've been the best running back the planet's ever seen if he didn't get injured. Archie Manning might've been the best Manning if he'd taken snaps for a better team.

Steve Young might've beaten the Triplets given Montana's defense or offensive line or Bill Walsh or whatever.

The hypos are interesting and, by all means, keep 'em coming. Be aware, though, their probative value is exactly squat because we don't know that Young plus Walsh would've been enough.

Even if I think it's a safe bet, how can you put high probability next to certainty and choose the safe bet? Montana DID win four Super Bowls, but, because there's a good chance Young would've won just as many with Joe's [blank], he gets the benefit of the doubt?

How insane does that look in print? Good lord.

And that's essentially what Joe Montana versus Steve Young boils down to. Same for Tom Brady against Peyton Manning.

What-if against what did.

What did happen is that Joe Montana and Tom Brady won when it mattered most. Far more frequently than they lost. They have shown a proven ability to use the glare of the spotlight as fuel rather than to shrink from its suffocating presence.

Steve Young never put together enough big wins to change the gap in perception between Joe Cool and him, as much as it pains me to admit.

If Peyton Manning ends his career suffering the same imperfection, his homers will eventually enjoy a similar revelation—that Tom Brady will always be the better quarterback.

And, on that day, they'll be ice-skating on the river Styx.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Through the Wardrobe—A Fantasy Look at the Pitchers

In my previous piece, I said I tend to gloss over outfielders. If that's true (and it is), I flat out ignore pitching. Those of you looking for sturdy analysis of more than just the super-elite starters and closers should look elsewhere because I'm just going to hit the aces of the aces.

In other words, these are not the previews you're looking for (with a wave of my hand).

It should hopefully be a fun read though...


I don't qualify that with 'starters' or 'closers' because I'll be handling both. And it'll still only be about 10-15 guys period. No second tier, no third tier, no fliers.

With the hurlers, the strategy is the important part of my analysis.

Start with the basic assumption that you can't win all the categories through astute drafting if you have 10 categories at a minimum, evenly split between offense and pitching.

You might luck out and hit several jackpots that result in an absolutely dominant team, but there's simply no way to scientifically do so—baseball is too unpredictable and too dependent on intangible, immeasurable forces.

Next, concede that hitters are far easier to predict, partially because you'll have at least twice as many at-bats as you'll have innings pitched on a weekly basis in most leagues. The larger sample size allows for more normalization to expectations when a player is meeting them—a couple bad days usually get erased by a couple good ones if the hitter is good.

Meanwhile, a single bad outing from one of your aces could very well torpedo the entire week's pitching categories. Worse, it might take your guy another start or two to get things righted.

Another reason hitters seem more reliable is because they are. For whatever reason, even the best pitchers will lose a year or two to injury and/or bad performance. That doesn't seem to be the case for the top 10-15 hitters on an annual basis.

I'll acknowledge this point is debatable—what's not debatable is my personal experience and/or luck.

In 2007, I drafted Roy Halladay as my primary starter and he had an off year. In 2004 and 2005, Doc carried a little more than half his usual workload due to injury. And this is arguably the most consistent virtuoso in baseball.

Last year, the first two starters I grabbed were Aaron Harang and Justin Verlander. Harang was so bad I eventually cut ties with him and Verlander was almost worse because I rode that horse right into the burning [expletive] barn.

The story with closers is no different.

Outside of the absolute cream of the crop, it's a crap shoot. Last year, I took the electric arm of Manny Corpas and the reliably high save total of Joe Borowski. Neither held the job beyond May and Corpas was done by April if memory serves me.

Brad Lidge was perfect and Huston Street imploded. Joakim Soria became unhittable while Billy Wagner's arm exploded.

Hence, faced with one set of categories that are more accurately predictable (even if only in theory), it makes sense to concentrate on those areas and pick a couple from the pitching side to address later in the draft where bargains are available.

For me, that usually means wins, saves, and strikeouts.

Why those three? Because owners who love pitchers chase earned run average and WHIP so those guys are gone really early. Way too early for my tastes.

Wins, saves, and Ks are available well down the pitching ladder and always emerge over the course of the season via the wire (much like useful outfielders).

A guy like Chien-Ming Wang is going with the 199th pick in the average Yahoo draft despite being a virtual cinch for 15-20 wins if he makes all his starts. He won't give you much in the way of whiffs and his ERA/WHIP combo won't make anyone stop the presses, but those are dicey metrics for even the best ace (as I alluded to).

With all the turmoil at the back-end of games over the course of a 162-affair season, new closers wait in the wings on draft day and others pop up midseason. Unless you can snare one of the top guys for value, go after a discounted one later and address more pressing needs in the moment.

Sure, Jonathan Papelbon is dynamite. The thing is, you can approximate his save total and strikeouts using two or three mediocre closers that you pick up in your draft's gloaming or off waivers.

If you're punting ERA/WHIP, then why not grab Aramis Ramirez or Jacoby Ellsbury or Geovany Soto? All three are going after Papelbon on average and there are other equally attractive options.

Of course, I'm not the only subscriber to this theory so all those guys may be gone. In that case, I'm pulling the trigger because I'll jump all over a top-flight ace or closer if he's the value pick i.e. all the pieces I want who are ranked around him have been snatched.

*Note: this just happened in my second and last draft—it totally screwed me. Guys I figured would be available much later were going all over the place (Pablo Sandoval went with the 74th pick) so I ended up with two aces (Peavy/Liriano) and two fantastic closers (Rivera/Soria). Meanwhile, I have Ryan Theriot at shortstop. Oh well.

With that in mind, here are the pitchers (both starters and closers) who I keep an eye on because one will eventually fall into a position where he becomes the best option for my strategy:


1. Johan Santana, New York Mets—234.1 IP, 16 Ws, 206 Ks, 2.53 ERA, 1.15 WHIP

As much as I love Tim Lincecum, even I have to admit that Santana makes more sense as the first arm off the board.

Had it not been for the Mets' implosion in the bullpen last year, the Cy Young may very well have landed in Johan's hot left hand. I'm not saying it would've been right because the Freak still kept pace with the New York southpaw while pitching for one of the worst teams in baseball.

But voters overvalue wins and Santana saw quite a few vaporize when handed to the firemen (who were more like arsonists).

Add those Ws onto his record and people would've made more of a fuss out of the similarities in the other peripherals between Johan's '08 campaign and that of the Franchise.

Having grabbed both Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz in he offseason, it looks like we'll see what Santana can do with an effective relief corps. He's already got a far better offense (understatement of the year) than Lincecum so the table seems set of quite a feast.

2. Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants—227 IP, 18 Ws, 265 Ks, 2.62 ERA, 1.17 WHIP

If Lincecum is on 20 of 30 teams in Major League Baseball, he's the No. 1 pitcher taken in almost every draft. He's already going first in a whole bunch despite pitching in front of an offense that will be mediocre if the best-case scenario materializes.

At worst, it could make some minor league assembly of splinters ferocious by comparison. And I'm a die-hard fan of the Orange and Black.

Having said all that, I'd take Lincecum first in a heart beat because he's the big ticket for my favorite franchise and there's is nothing negative to say about the guy. Absolutely zero. And he'll be 25 in June so the best is yet to come.

The funny thing is—because winning the Cy Young has thrust Tiny Tim into the national spotlight—you're beginning to see a bunch of people opining on how it's only a matter of time before Lincecum blows out his arm or breaks down a la Pedro Martinez. They range from clueless to well-informed.

And they're all wrong.

I'm not saying Lincecum will NEVER break down—as I said, almost every pitcher hits the shelf sooner or later. What I'm saying is that, in SF, we've been hearing the awkward delivery song-and-dance ever since the youngster was drafted.

We've also been hearing how he's never iced his arm, never had any sort of discomfort, and how his delivery has been specially designed to minimize the strain on his arm rather than overwork it. Again, there are no guarantees in life—the theory behind the motion could be totally wrong.

But so far so good and, considering how long Lincecum's been using it, perhaps his unique mechanics have earned the benefit of the doubt?

3. Roy Halladay, Toronto Blue Jays—246 IP, 20 Ws, 206 Ks, 2.78 ERA, 1.05 WHIP

I'll say it again—Hallady is arguably the most consistent top-flight guy on the bump in all of MLB. Last season was a masterpiece even by Doc's lofty standards so don't expect a repeat.

But his ERA will always be in the neighborhood of 3.00 and his WHIP will almost always be south of 1.30. Those are insane numbers considering how explosive the American League can be with the designated hitter the AL East in particular.

Halladay will be 32 in May so his age isn't yet a big concern, even more so because his strikeout total jumped by almost 70 from '07 to '08. That's not exactly a reason to worry age is dulling Roy's effective edge.

Obviously, it would indicate quite the contrary.

Since the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox have all cranked it up a notch, I'm a little hesistant putting a pitcher who must face all three on a regular basis this high. Ultimately though, that's been the rub on Halladay for years and it has yet to really hinder his production.

4. CC Sabathia, New York Yankees—253 IP, 17 Ws, 251 Ks, 2.70 ERA, 1.11 WHIP

I know, I just said I didn't like sticking an AL East hurler this high. The difference is Sabathia doesn't have to face the best lineup (on paper) because he pitchers in front of it.

Still, facing the Rays and BoSox will be no laughing matter for the hefty lefty.

Fortunately for the Bronx Bombers, I think they've finally scored a free agent who will answer the bell and meet expectations. Sabathia got off to a slow start in 2008 and, if he does that in New York, things could get interesting. Even if that happens, I still think CC has the mental constitution to persevere.

And I don't think that will happen.

Sabathia has never worked with the luxury of a loaded lineup and an impeccable closer like Mariano Rivera. Despite working with sub-standard supporting casts (in some cases), he's posted stellar season after stellar season.

Now, he's sharing a clubhouse with some of the best in baseball as he enters his prime ((29 in July).

The only thing keeping Sabathia this low is the unpredictability of the Big Apple's influence on players and the small red flag raised by an incredible number of innings over three years by modern baseball's standards.

I don't think either will be a serious concern after the first month.

5. Brandon Webb, Arizona Diamondbacks—226.2 IP, 22 Ws, 183 Ks, 3.30 ERA. 1.20 WHIP

Here's were the inevitability of injury starts rearing its ugly head. And for no other reason than Webb's consistency—he's taken basically every start since he arrived in 2003. Since then, Brandon's never made less than 33 starts in a year.

In '03, he made 28 starts plus a relief cameo.

The dude is as steady as they come and features a sinkerball, which isn't notorious like a curve ball for destroying elbows/arms. There's really no good reason to expect Webb to miss time.

But the fact remains the human shoulder wasn't designed to throw over the top and Webb's been doing just that like clockwork for six straight years. The landscape of modern baseball is littered with Tommy John surgeries and torn labrums.

I have yet to hear of a pro pitcher who didn't have considerable and permanent damage to his shoulder once his career was over. Shoot, I have fraying of my rotator cuff from my playing days, which ended in high school.

Each individual is different and there would not be rules without exceptions. To boot, Brandon Webb is in his prime, features a pitch that never seems to lose its effectiveness, and toes the slab for a pretty good club.

There are questions at the back of the bullpen since Chad Qualls has never seen serious run as a closer and Webb's defense—critical for a guy who induces as many grass-cutters as Webb—took a hit with the exodus of Orlando Hudson, who is one of the better leathermen in MLB.

But those are minor. If you don't buy the injury bug, draft Webb without pause.

6. Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies—227.1 IP, 14 Ws, 196 Ks, 3.09 ERA, 1.08 WHIP

The top of the pitching heap is so tightly clustered that Hamels' arm concerns knocked him from No. 3 to here. Each ace is so good and durable on this list that even the possibility of missing a significant number of starts is toxic.

It's knocked Josh Beckett all the way down to No. 9 and kept Francisco Liriano off altogether.

That said, the bugaboo seems milder by the day and Cole (already 25) is almost as young as Lincecum. There's a good chance he'd bounce back firmly and quickly from even a semi-serious ding, which this doesn't appear to be.

Granted, the southpaw saw a considerable surge in innings from '07 to '08 (over 40) and fanned amost 20 extra hitters as well as walking more, which usually indicates a general inflation in pitches per batter.

With that as the background to the elbow discomfort, the sirens get a little louder.

Nonetheless, Hamels is a scintillating talent with much potential left to harness and time to do it. He takes the pill for one of the scariest offenses in baseball that may be even better with the addition of Raul Ibanez.

You don't want to be too wary in the face of all that upside.

7. Jake Peavy, San Diego Padres—173.2 IP, 10 Ws, 166 Ks, 2.85 ERA, 1.18 WHIP

Peavy represents the flip-side of the inevitable injury coin. Here's one of the most reliable arms in baseball coming off a season hampered by injury.

This is the side I like because, if you think of the injury bug as a pressure valve that must be opened periodically to avoid destruction, Peavy's just let off his steam and should be good to go for a while. Meanwhile, a guy like Webb looks ready to explode at any second.

Additionally, Jake's production looks kinda pedestrian because of the starts he lost so he should be a bargain on draft day as long as your league doesn't feature any Padre supporters.

In the interest of equity, the injury may not be completely behind Peavy so he might struggle with it again this year. But that's not usually the pattern for these guys—I have no statistics to back it up, but the aces seem to have stretches of three or four healthy years before encountering another hiccup.

There's also the matter of a trade. While leaving the pitcher-friendly dimensions of Petco would potentially hurt Jake's ERA, his hit and whiff rates have always reflected a pitcher who excels with great stuff rather than contact finding mitts.

Plus, the trade would presumably send Peavy to a contender and an actual MLB lineup. That's gotta help.

8. Dan Haren, Arizona Diamondbacks—216 IP, 16 Ws, 206 Ks, 3.33 ERA, 1.13 WHIP

I am not a believer in Dan Haren.

For whatever reason, I still remember the kid who came up with St. Louis and never blew up my skirt. That's totally unfair because he's produced four straight years of fantastic work.

What makes my stance on Haren even more ridiculous are the trends. Almost all indicate the 28-year-old is approaching a prime that looks better than anything we've seen yet. All the more so because he's in a division weak on offense and strong on pitchers' parks.

Consider his whiff rate's been steadily on the rise, his walk rate's been on the fade if it's been moving at all, the same can be said of his WHIP, and he's allowing fewers homers each campaign.

Furthermore, his style isn't as defensively dependent so the only concern he shares with his front-end mate Webb is the unproven Qualls in the 'pen. What I didn't say about Qualls earlier is that his stuff is filthy so neither Webb's nor Haren's owners need to lose fantasy-sleep.

And yet I don't like him as a pitcher. Go figure.

9. Josh Beckett, Boston Red Sox—174.1 IP, 12 Ws, 172 Ks, 4.03 ERA, 1.19 WHIP

As I alluded to above, Beckett falls this far because of health concerns. Like Peavy, Josh is coming off a season that saw his effectiveness limited by injury.

The difference between the two, other than the one year of age Beckett (29 in May) has on Peavy, is that Beckett's history is pockmarked with starts lost to injury. He's one of the exceptions to aces going down to injury once in a while.

Beckett seems to go down regularly and, even when taking starts, always seems to be suffering or recovering from some mallady.

Furthermore, the list of injuries that nagged the BoSox' ace in 2008 features a littany of potentially dire problems, each of which threatens to erode the very core of dominant pitching.

Beckett experience back trouble, soreness in his elbow, and then a torn obligue last season. If something had happened to his legs, Josh would've experienced substantial damage to every key element to the pitching motion.

Of course, I'm not a doctor or a Red Sox fan so I have no idea what the problems were nor how signicant. If they were just run-of-the-mill hot spots, Beckett will be no worse for the wear. If not?

Uh oh. Hard-throwers who lose movement tend to see a lot of pop-ups turn into big flies.

Honorable mention

Francisco Liriano, Minnesota Twins—hasn't quite regained pre-surgery form.

Roy Oswalt, Houston Astros—pitches in a live yard and in a division of live yards.

James Shields, Tampa Bay Rays—will eventually break through, but AL East is rough this year.

Chad Billingsley, Los Angeles Dodgers—I hate the Bums, but this guy's legit.

1. Jonathan Papelbon, Boston Red Sox—69.1 IP, 5 Ws, 41 saves, 77 Ks, 2.34 ERA, 0.95 WHIP

Papelbon didn't finish 2008 as the top rated closer in Major League Baseball, but he's probably the safest bet to finish there heading into most years. He is a 28-year-old clydesdale who closes games for one of the best teams in baseball, featuring arguably the best rotation and bullpen.

Although his blown save total, ERA, and WHIP jumped a tad last year while his K per inning ratio went down, there isn't much cause to panic. The big fella's innings increased, his walks decreased, his homers allowed decreased, and his save total increased.

And none of the fluctuations were too drastic so just consider '08 a slightly soft year that still qualifies as one of the best in baseball and keeps Papelbon right in line to be his dominating self in '09.

2. Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees—70.2 IP, 6 Ws, 39 saves, 77 Ks, 1.40 ERA, 0.67 WHIP

If you're a baseball fan long enough, you see a lot of crazy things.

When Rivera's career is over and we have several years to really contemplate, to digest what he's accomplished, Mo may go down as one of the most profound mysteries in the history of the game.

This bad dude is 39 and coming off possibly the most stellar year of a career filled with years that qualify as some of the best of all-time. He cut his WHIP almost in half from '07 (1.12), reduced his ERA by more than half (3.15), cut his walks in half (from 12 to six), saved nine extra games, and did it all without adding appreciably to his fan total.

The Sandman did this all, as he always has, with basically one pitch: the feared cutter.

This is a pitch that causes some of the best switch-hitters to go up right-handed against the right-handed Rivera because it is so decimating on left-handed swingers. Dennis Eckersley and Trevor Hoffman both recognize Mo as the best ever and trace it to this pitch.

Future Hall-of-Fame hitters openly quiver at the idea of catching it on their hands, calling it the best pitcher ever thrown.

So, yeah, he's still reliable as he closes in on 40.

3. Joe Nathan, Minnesota Twins—67.2 IP, 1 W, 39 saves, 74 Ks, 1.33 ERA, 0.90 WHIP

Nathan may very well deserve to be higher on this list, but playing baseball in Minnesota has never been the secret to geting your dues.

The fact remains, however, that Joe Nathan has been every bit the steadying influence that Papelbon and Rivera have been in recent years.

While his strikeout totals have declined, his ERA and WHIP have followed suit. Since Joe still whiffs more than a batter per inning, I think his owners and Twins' fans are more than satisfied with the development.

With a dynamite set-up crew in front of him and some fabulous young arms populating the starting rotation, the Twinkies have the pitching to compete. With Joe Mauer starting the season on the shelf and an already-weakish lineup, they'll have to do so by winning close games.

And that's good news if you can get your hot little hands on Nathan.

4. Joakim Soria, Kansas City Royals—67.1 IP, 2 Ws, 42 saves, 66 Ks, 1.60 ERA, 0.86 WHIP

A closer—from KC of all places—gets the last honored spot in this group of dominating, lights-out firemen. The Royals won 75 games in '08 and Soria saved 42 so don't worry about whether the whispers regarding the Crowns being a contender in '09 are realistic or not—it doesn't matter.

Joakim will come in a slam the door on whatever chances he gets and, since KC's pitching/hitting are still developing, most of their wins should provide ample opportunities for Soria to display his considerable wares.

In only his second year on the job (and his first full one), the Royal closer trimmed his ERA and WHIP while walking the same number and striking out fewer batters. That would indicate to me the batters aren't finding a comfort zone with el hombre despite the growing familiarity.

They're finding a way to get the bat on the ball with slightly more frequency, perhaps, but to the detriment of effective contact. Thusly, Soria's able to keep more runners of the bases despite more contact.

And that bodes well for the longevity of his reign of terror over opposing hitters.

Honorable mention

Bobby Jenks, Chicago White Sox—lost velocity in '08.

Brad Lidge, Philadelphia Phillies—perfection in '08 doesn't totally erase doubts from Houston.

Francisco Rodriguez New York Mets—high save total doesn't obscure rising peripherals.

Matt Capps, Pittsburgh Pirates—hurt in '08, but quietly one of the best and on improving team.

Kerry Wood, Cleveland Indians—only one year on the job, but moves to bigger park.

Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs—can Lou Pinella really be serious about going with Kevin Gregg?

So there you go—the overview of my fantasy approach is done.

In conclusion, I'll offer one last bit of advice—I believe that the secret to winning a fantasy championship is very similar to winning the real thing in one key regard: you put together a team to make the playoffs and then hit the prayer circuit once you're there.

By drafting wisely and staying vigilant as you manage your club over the course of the season, you can realistically control whether your club qualifies for the postseason. With so many games, you can create a plan and then address the crises as they come to satisfying results.

But once it comes down to elimination based on a single week, it's up to the baseball gods.

And they are not merciful. Good luck.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Through the Wardrobe—A Fantasy Look at the Outfielders

It's time for another editorial shift before I finish up my fantasy approach to the 2009 Major League Baseball season. Having assessed the infielders, attention now moves to the outfielders and pitchers—two groups that I tend to dismiss to a degree so my analysis will be a tad superficial.

I'll deal with the pitchers separately, so let's focus on the guys roaming the big real estate.

Almost a third of the top 100 fantasy players were OFs—if I did extensive analysis for the top two tiers, it would be about 20 stars (possibly more) and that would be an obscene read. The third tier would be just as fat by itself.

Furthermore, extensive analysis for a group this deep is somewhat unnecessary. There's simply not much difference between Alfonso Soriano (picked 15th on average in 2009) and Vernon Wells (picked 84th) except for personal taste. In between, you'll see fluctuations in the three main areas (power, speed, average), but the overall production will be pretty consistent.

Finally, helpful outfielders seem to always be available on the wire—far more so than the other offensive pieces. You'll see undrafted guys or late round picks make huge leaps (a la Ryan Ludwick and Nate McLouth) or top prospects emerge to become productive contributors (a la Jay Bruce in '08 or Corey Hart/Hunter Pence in '07).

These are the primary elements that make drafting them easier...


As I said in the introduction to this series, there are many general approaches to fantasy baseball. I use the rotisserie mindset in my leagues (which are head-to-head and 10-14 teams). Keep that in mind because, using this approach, drafting outfielders is almost an afterthought.

But my take doesn't work in all settings and/or for every owner.

If you want to...say...maximize production with each pick regardless of position because your league is huge or that's just your thing, then the outfielders would be critical. Several of the top producers every year navigate the outfield and there are some important differences between those.

So I'll write up probably 5-10 OFs more than the others just for those owners who don't like my stance. And for fun.

Subscribers to my camp (not that I lead it) would use the phrase "dime a dozen" for OFs due to the aforementioned similarity, depth, and post-draft availability of useful guys.

As long as you get one big name in the outfield early to go with elite infielders, you're good.

You can usually catch lightning in a bottle later in the draft by taking a bunch of high-risk, high-reward outfielders. That should allow you to walk away with two substantial contributors without wasting the extra early round pick (better spent on infielders or maybe a pitcher).

It's far more difficult to score a high-end dirt merchant later in the draft because most of even the shakier guys get snapped up early.

And there's still the matter of the studs who emerge as the season progresses. If you whiff in your late round efforts to find another stable outfielder, there's a good chance you can find one several weeks in via the wire.

With that in mind, here's how I see the outfielders:
FIRST TIER 1. Grady Sizemore, Cleveland Indians—101 runs, 33 HRs, 90 RBI, 38 SBs, .268 average

This is the only tier that'll have much detail and the entry price is fairly simple—you've gotta have the potential to contribute in all three primary areas as embodied by the five standard categories (average, home runs, runs, runs batted in, and stolen bases) and contribute well.

Sizemore is almost the prototype—if not for the low-ish average he would be it.

And, at 26 (27 in August), there's reason to believe Grady will add the last element in 2009. This will be his fourth full season so it's about time for him to begin showing his maturity—to start combining his awesome physical ability with a growing-but-already-considerable reservoir of knowledge.

The icing on the cake, as far as I'm concerned, is Sizemore racked up those totals leading off for an underachieving Tribe in '08. I expect the Indians to be a major player this year and part of that is due to an overall improvement in the offense.

Grady Sizemore should both be driving the improvement and benefiting from it.

Having already improved on his plate discipline over the course of his short career, the Cleveland center fielder has all the makings of being a top five producer in all categories.

2. Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers—92 runs, 37 HRs, 106 RBI, 14 SBs, .285 average

Braun is another guy who could be setting the standard for fantasy production by the end of the year. He's only 25 and 2008 actually was a bit of a regression from his rookie season.

I refuse to call that line a sophomore slump, but those who do will be looking for a rebound. I can't really conceive what a rebound from those numbers would look like, but I guess he could add 50 points to his average.

I think it's probably more likely that you see a modest increase across the board as Braun puts his five tools to work in a more familiar environment. Dude will probably never swipe more than 15-20 bags, but that's enough when you're flashing 100+/40+/100+/.300 potential on an annual basis.

And Ryan is but one man.

He's in a lineup with Prince Fielder (25 in May), J.J. Hardy (27 in August), Corey Hart (27), and a full year of Mike Cameron. All those elements should also buoy the left fielder's performance.

3. Josh Hamilton, Texas Rangers—98 runs, 32 HRs, 130 RBI, 9 SBs, .304 average

Hamilton will be 28 in May, but he's got less Big League experience than the guys ahead of him because of his well-publicized trials and travails. And it's not outrageous to say he's got the most talent of the group.

Don't forget—this guy patrols center so he's got enough speed to steal more than those nine bases. Considering how much he's had to digest and overcome, base-running probably wasn't high on the list so Josh might just add some extra oomph there in 2009.

Nobody expected it from Matt Holliday last year, but he finished with more swipes than bombs.

Even if Hamilton just continues to toss in the odd theft when he's bored, the Ranger lineup was potent last year and figures to be even better this year. The loss of Milton Bradley will sting, but a full year of Chris Davis, Nelson Cruz, the hopeful arrival of Jason Saltalamacchia or Taylor Teagarden, and another year on Ian Kinsler should all help float Hamilton's boat a little higher.

And his numbers petered out a bit in the second half, possibly because Hamilton was unprepared for the strain of 162 games. If that was the issue, it should be corrected in '09.

4. Jason Bay, Boston Red Sox—111 runs, 31 HRs, 101 RBI, 10 SBs, .286 average

This one will draw some heat, but I really don't understand why Bay isn't getting more love. This guy was a top 20 outfielder while playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Even last year's numbers factor in over 100 games with the Buccos.

Bay is 30 so he's still in his prime and much has been made of how well his swing fits Fenway.

That makes 162 games spent in the murderous Boston order no small bonus. Especially since it , figures to be even better this year with a healthier year from David Ortiz and/or Mike Lowell plus another year of development on the youngsters (Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury).

The kicker is everyone's making such a fuss over Manny Ramirez. Well, the numbers from Manny's much-celebrated '08 campaign were basically the same as Bay's with a substantially higher batting average.

And Ramirez final line was the product of 100+ games with Boston and about 60 with the less-potent-yet-way-better-than-Pittsburgh Los Angeles Dodgers. I say Bay's line was better considering the context.

Regardless, there's a damn good chance Jason returns to his 2005 highs of 20+ steals and a .300 average to go with more runs, homers, and RBI.

5. B.J. Upton, Tampa Bay Rays—85 runs, 9 HRs, 67 RBI, 44 SBs, .273 average

Those numbers will look grossly out of place by the time this tier is through, but I'm obviously buying that Bossman Junior basically swung with one arm in '08. He had major offseason surgery to correct the problem and is now dealing with a bruised hand from an errant pitch, but neither seem to be of any concern.

Although, if Upton were playing that first week or two, he'd probably be above Bay. Unfortunately, the talent is so thick up here that even a minor concern can cost you a rung.

B.J. will be 25 in August and is surrounded by equally dazzling talent that seems to be developing at about the same rate.

Figure a healthy Upton basking in the glow of a full season from Evan Longoria, a return to form by Carl Crawford, another solid year from Carlos Pena, and a step forward for Dioner Navarro will be an enormous upgrade from last year's model.

He'll continue to blaze away on the base-paths (when he feels like it) and I'm betting he exhibits more of that postseason power now that Upton's got the benefit of both arms.

6. Carlos Beltran, New York Mets—116 runs, 27 HRs, 112 RBI, 25 SBs, .284 average

I don't like putting a guy who'll be 32 in April and with a history of injury problems this high, but Beltran's consistency deserves it.

The .284 was Beltran's highest tally since 2003 and one of the highest of his career so it's probably not sustainable. But he'll certainly hover around .270, which is fantastic when Carlos is a lock to chip in 25-30 taters with an equal number of steals.

In the Mets' lineup—where he's surrounded by Jose Reyes, David Wright, and Carlos Delgado—you can bet Beltran will score 100+ runs and drive in about an equal number.

However, the fact that Carlos may just as easily reel off 40+ bombs and thefts is what keeps him this high despite the small age/injury caution flags. While the odds of either happening are small, that there is just as much chance of an exceptionally wonderful season as there is of an exceptionally awful one is enough to keep Beltran breathing the rarefied air.

7. Matt Holliday, Oakland Athletics—107 runs, 25 HRs, 88 RBI, 28 SBs, .321 average

Look, you either believe this muchacho was a Coors Field specialty act and will just be very good now that home no longer features mile-high air. Or you believe he's a phenom regardless of time or place.

Clearly, moving into the heavier air by the Bay will take a bite out of his power numbers—he finished as the 9th ranked player according to Yahoo in '08 so I'm dropping him a bit.

But moving to the Land of the Designated Hitter should put some of that bite back in, even if it is Oakland. I'm already on record stating I believe the As will compete in '09 and Holliday rises to such occasions.

Who can forget the tear this guy went on when Colorado rampaged to the World Series in '07?

Then there are those 28 swipes and the average. Neither of those should be hurt too much by the move. Not all of those balls that stay in the park will be caught and Matt may feel the need to run more to compensate for any decline in power numbers.

The bottom-line is I'm a believer in Matt Holliday and this is where believers have him.

8. Nick Markakis, Baltimore Orioles—106 runs, 20 HRs, 87 RBI, 10 SBs, .306 average

There are few things that excite baseball people more than a guy in his mid-twenties with five tools, a growing awareness of the strike zone, and an old school attitude. Markakis, at 25, has all of the above.

Last season saw a dip in Nick's RBI total, but he got on base with far more frequency via the walk while not losing his power stroke or points off his average i.e. Markakis was just as aggressive while being more selective. I like it and I'm not alone.

Helping Nick's case is the fortification of his surroundings—Baltimore's lineup isn't ready to compete with the bigguns atop the American League East, but it should be a lot better in 2009.

Adam Jones will improve after a full year's worth of experience and growth. Matt Wieters is up to show he's been worth the ink (or bytes). Brian Roberts is strapped to the ship for the long haul. And we'll see if the Resurrection Twins (Melvin Mora/Aubrey Huff) are for real.

In case anything goes wrong, Ty Wigginton is ready with a safety net plus Felix Pie might become something more than a blur and a bust.

Markakis was probably good for an increase across the board anyway since he's closing in on his power prime, Baltimore wants him to run more, and the aforementioned plate discipline should help the average. If the rest of the order can improve as well, 2009 could be special.

9. Carlos Lee, Houston Astros—61 runs, 28 HRs, 100 RBI, 4 SBs, .314 average

El Caballo will be 33 in June so it's with some reluctance I put him up here, but he's been as reliable as they come and last season's injury (broken finger) isn't particularly foreboding. What seals it is Lee's average of 12 swipes per season for his career.

That rocked me.

Carlos registered those 2008 numbers despite missing almost 40 games at the end of the season, which might shock other people. Yep, Lee missed almost a quarter of the season and still managed to hit the century mark in RBI and come within a whisker of 30 bombs.

With a 120 or 130 more at-bats to do some damage, his final line would have been a real embarrassment of riches even if his days of stealing 15-20 bags are over.

Such a glorious image earns el Caballo placement with the elite outfielders, the deteriorating Houston offense notwithstanding.

10. Carl Crawford, Tampa Bay Rays—69 runs, 8 HRs, 57 RBI, 25 SBs, .273 average

Crawford's is another set of numbers that looks out of place, but he missed over 50 games with a torn tendon in his finger and struggled up until suffering that injury with hamstring issues. The tendon seems like a freak thing while the hammy is a bit worrisome.

But Carl's been a runnin' fool in Spring Training so it doesn't seem to be worrying him or the Rays.

The really insane thing is, though Crawford's entering his seventh full MLB season, he'll only be 28 in August. It seems like he should be getting ready to retire and Carl's just entering his prime. While a leap after so many years in the Show would seem unlikely, much stranger things have happened.

Although Crawford lacks the 30-40 dinger pop the rest of the guys up here have, he possesses infinitely more speed than anyone save his teammate, B.J. Upton. And he's got Bossman beat at least as far as base-stealing prowess is concerned.

His injury-plagued 2008 campaign was the first full season in which Crawford failed to record a minimum of 46 swipes (two more than Upton's career high of 44).

More power may come for Crawford, but the speed ain't going anywhere.

11. Alfonso Soriano, Chicago Cubs—76 runs, 29 HRs, 75 RBI, 19 SBs, .280 average

Soriano's no longer a top tier outfielder in my personal opinion, but he makes the group because he's still considered as such by the fantasy community. This guy is the fifth OF taken in the average 2009 Yahoo draft, falling behind only Sizemore, Braun, Hamilton, and Upton.

That's ridiculous—Alfonso hits in a potent lineup and is one of the most productive players in the make-believe world...when healthy.

But it's the qualifier that does all the work. Well, the qualifier and his age (33).

For other guys on the list who suffered a trip to the shelf in '08, I made allowances. Guys like Lee and Crawford got the benefit of the medical doubt while I'm penalizing Soriano. Seems unfair, right?

The difference is I don't expect another large chunk of the season to be lost to injury by either of the aforementioned. I definitely expect that to be the case for Soriano; I'm counting on it.

Yet, the potential for a 30/30 or even 40/40 season perseveres if my man can just keep his parts in working order. Even such a remote prospect earns Alfonso a spot with the cream of the crop...begrudgingly.


12. Carlos Quentin, Chicago White Sox—96 runs, 36 HRs, 100 RBI, 7 SBs, .288 average

Everyone remembers the self-inflicted injury that end Quentin's season, but that's not why I've got him outside the top tier despite putting up a season that arguably qualifies in only 480 ABs.

I'm dinging him because 2008 is the lone season where Q's production matched his potential. He's only 26 (27 in August) so there's no reason to completely doubt him, but he quadrupled his career homer total in those 480 ABs.

There are flashes in the pan and there are superstars that take a little longer than others to arrive. Let's see which one Carlos is—he certainly has the ability to be the latter.

13. Manny Ramirez, Los Angeles Dodgers—102 runs, 37 HRs, 121 RBI, 3 SBs, .332 average

Lord, I hate the Bums and it's only gotten worse since Ramirez was loosed upon the urban sprawl. I almost loathe Manny because of his apparent disdain for the parts of baseball I treasure.

He should probably be higher.

The only genuine problem with Man-Ram in the world of make-believe is whether he stays productive for the entire year. As skeptical as I've been, even I have to admit the honeymoon should endure at least through '09.

Since I can't type anything else negative about his fantasy profile...

14. Nate McClouth, Pittsburgh Pirates—113 runs, 26 HRs, 94 RBI, 23 SBs, .276 average

McClouth is slipping down draft boards so you probably don't have to take him this high, but keep an eye on him because early reports are he wants to run more in '09.

At 27, he should be entering his power prime so those taters are for real. Some are worried by his decline after a hot 60 or so games to open the year.

Man up, people—it wasn't that sharp and the speed alone should keep his value in this neighborhood as long as his production doesn't totally regress.

15. Curtis Granderson, Detroit Tigers—112 runs, 22 HRs, 66 RBI, 12 SBs, .280 average

Here's another guy in his prime (28) who's hitting in a potent lineup and has the potential to put up first tier numbers. If Curtis can pump up that RBI total or the thefts, he'll join the crowded a-list.

But that's been the Granderson Party line for the last couple years. Of course, he did cut his Ks way down in 2008 so this might be the year it all comes together for him.

Until I can eliminate all the conditions/qualifiers from his analysis, he stays here.

16. Alex Rios, Toronto Blue Jays—91 runs, 15 HRs, 79 RBI, 32 SBs, .291 average

Yet another phenom on paper who has yet to package it all in one season. So far, it's been either power or speed while the rest stays pretty consistent. If Rios can re-establish his 24-homer clout from 2007 while keeping his 32-swipe speed from 2008, we've really got something.

If not, well Alex is still a damn fine outfielder so he might be worth overpaying a bit for the upside even if it never comes.

On the other hand, there's a blackening cloud of pessimism forming over the Blue Jays' right fielder so you could also gamble on him sliding down the draft board.

Therein lies the fun of selecting outfielders.

17. Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers—93 runs, 18 HRs, 76 RBI, 35 SBs, .290 average

Did I mention I abhor the Dodgers? It takes true resolve to fight back the edges of nausea and include a second Bum in the top 20 at such a stacked position, but the LA youngster must crash the party.

Kemp looks like an arrogant, self-entitled punk and one glimpse of this tank flying around the yard gives you a good idea why. Not that I agree or enjoy it, but he's already shown the ability to excel in all facets of the game—defense included.

There are still gaps in his game, but he's 24 and he's got Manny for a whole year. Damn it.

18. Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners—103 runs, 6 HRs, 42 RBI, 43 SBs, .310 average

If you plan on drafting a lot of power elsewhere, then Ichiro is a perfect player to have. Perfect.

Leg issues slowed the Japanese superstar in '08 and he still posted his customary plus numbers in runs, steals, and average. Suzuki will be back in right field and most experts expect the reduced defensive workload to pay health dividends that should convert to offensive ones as well.

Ichiro will not give you much in the homer or RBI department—you draft him because he's almost guaranteed to post 110+ runs, 35-45 swipes, and an average well over .300.

19. Vladimir Guerrero, Anaheim Angels—85 runs, 27 HRs, 91 RBI, 5 SBs, .303 average

Vlady-doddy is 34 and has started showing wear at the seams. Shoulder issues slowed him in 2007 and knee problems that required offseason surgery took him down a peg last year. I don't like the sound of any of that.

In 2008, Guerrer0 dropped 20 points off his hampered average from '07 and his OPS may have foreshadowed the stock market free-fall—it hit depths not seen since 1997 (sub-.900).

Barring a significant rebound, this could be Vlad's last year in the upper echelons.

20. Corey Hart, Milwaukee Brewers—76 runs, 20 HRs, 91 RBI, 23 SBs, .268 average

Hart is 27 years old, 6'6", and 230 pounds. Those 23 bags would be the second consecutive year he's stolen as many. Ever wonder how some individuals apparently get the biological gifts meant for several?

Corey's one of those lucky few—he got size and speed meant for different people.

His average dipped 30 points in 2008 in his second full campaign and his '08 number might be the more reasonable expectation. Fortunately, so is a modest increase in his power numbers as this gigantaur enters his power prime.

And it seems you can count on 20+ exhibition of thievery.

21. Shane Victorino, Philadelphia Phillies—102 runs, 14 HRs, 58 RBI, 36 SBs, .293 average

The Phillies' spark plug is really a version of Ichiro that gives you more power with a little less speed. That's not to say the Flyin' Hawaiian is actually slower than Ichiro, it's just not a huge part of Philadelphia's approach so Victorino doesn't put it on display as frequently.

The double-digit pop is for real, though, so you can sacrifice 10-15 swipes and 20-30 points off the average.

22. Raul Ibanez, Philadelphia Phillies—85 runs, 23 HRs, 110 RBI, 2 SBs, .293 average

OK, I reached for Ibanez. But there's method to the apparent madness—Safeco Field is an offensive graveyard compared to Citizen's Bank Park. It's much bigger by comparison and the 2008 Seattle Mariner lineup was a declawed, blind kitten compared to the Phils' 2009 version.

Raul put up pretty stellar numbers last season and now finds himself in a much livelier park surrounded by Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Shane Victorino, and Jayson Werth.

He's coming off the board MUCH later than this (36th OF taken in the average Yahoo draft) so no need to actually pull the trigger here, but I like Ibanez as a potential sleeper.

23. Magglio Ordonez, Detroit Tigers—72 runs, 21 HRs, 103 RBI, 1 SB, .317 average

Magglio gets the last nod purely out of respect for a superb career. At 35, he's showing signs of serious decline so I don't expect the numbers to get better in 2009. I expect them to get worse.

But an aging superstar can always shake off the cobwebs to remind people, one last time, of what he once was. That keeps Ordonez from the nether-regions for one more year.

THIRD TIER (you're basically only getting stats on these guys so you can see how little difference there is between tiers)

24. Jermaine Dye, Chicago White Sox—96 runs, 34 HRs, 96 RBI, 3 SBs, .292 average

Hurt by Father Time.

25. Jacoby Ellsbury, Boston Red Sox—98 runs, 9 HRs, 47 RBI, 50 SBs, .280 average

Hurt by lack of a proven track record.

26. Ryan Ludwick, St. Louis Cardinals—104 runs, 37 HRs, 113 RBI, 4 SBs, .299 average

Same as Ellsbury.

27. Bobby Abreu, Anaheim Angels—100 runs, 20 HRs, 100 RBI, 22 SBs, .296 average

Hurt by age and his exit off the New York Yankee juggernaut.

28. Vernon Wells, Toronto Blue Jays—63 runs, 20 HRs, 78 RBI, 4 SBs, .300 average

Hurt by injuries.

29. Alexei Ramirez, Chicago White Sox—65 runs, 21 HRs, 77 RBI, 13 SBs, .290 average

Hurt by lack of proven track record.

30. Hunter Pence, Houston Astros—78 runs, 25 HRs, 83 RBI, 11 SBs, .269 average

Hurt by sophomore slump.

31. Adam Dunn, Washington Nationals—79 runs, 40 HRs, 100 RBI, 2 SBs, .236 average

Hurt by brutal average.

32. Johnny Damon, New York Yankees—95 runs, 17 HRs, 71 RBI, 29 SBs, .303 average

Hurt by Father Time and my unreasonable skepticism in light of his resume.

33. Xavier Nady, New York Yankees—76 runs, 25 HRs, 97 RBI, 2 SBs, .305 average

Hurt by post-trade time in the cooler (not jail—his numbers tailed off).

34. Mark DeRosa, Cleveland Indians—103 runs, 21 HRs, 87 RBI, 6 SBs, .285 average

Hurt by the trade from the Chicago Cubs' friendier confines and more potent lineup.

35. Jayson Werth, Philadelphia Phillies—73 runs, 24 HRs, 67 RBI, 20 SBs, .273 average

Hurt by lack of proven track record.

36. Jay Bruce, Cincinnati Reds—63 runs, 21 HRs, 52 RBI, 4 SBs, .254 average

Same as Werth.

37. Torii Hunter, Anaheim Angels—85 runs, 21 HRs, 78 RBI, 19 SBs, .278 average

Hurt by Father Time and his style of admirably reckless play.

38. Justin Upton, Arizona Diamondbacks—52 runs, 15 HRs, 42 RBI, 1 SB, .250 average

Hurt by the diapers he must still wear (reference to his 21 years not an attitude problem).

39. Nelson Crux, Texas Rangers—19 runs, 7 HRs, 26 RBI, 3 SBs, .330 average

Hurt by a history of failing to translate minor league dominance to MLB success.

40. Lastings Milledge, Washington Nationals—65 runs, 14 HRs, 61 RBI, 24 SBs, .268 average

Where he belongs.

41. Chris Young, Arizona Diamondbacks—85 runs, 22 HRs, 85 RBI, 14 SBs, .248 average

Hurt by being Adam Dunn with more speed and less power.

42. Elijah Dukes, Washington Nationals—48 runs, 13 HRs, 44 RBI, 13 SBs, .264 average

Helped by incredible physical tools and a glimpse of a breakthrough last year.

You can see that almost all of these guys—No. 1 through No. 42—offer great ability in either the speed or power department and that means either a lot of bombs and RBI or swipes and runs scored.

If they're not outstanding in one facet, they offer a great mix of both.

The only number that gets noticeably worse as you move down the line is the batting average, which is arguably the least reliable metric anyway. Significant swings are comparably normal and that means drafting based on average is typically an unwise strategy (the Ichiros of the MLB world notwithstanding).

Yet another reason to focus on the other areas and let the cadence of your particular draft dictate your outfield needs.

Next up...the pitchers.