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Fantasy baseball picks

By ALAN RITTNER
Published March 29, 2006

Accountability time: Two seasons ago, my breakout candidates included Victor Martinez, Jake Peavy, Brad Wilkerson ... a pretty solid group. Last year they included Kip Wells, Laynce Nix and Kaz Matsui. Also, Zack Greinke was one of my five top AL pitchers. Ouch. Let's hope that like a reverse Bret Saberhagen, I'm stronger in even years.

FIVE BEST HITTERS (AL)

1. Alex Rodriguez, 3B, Yankees. In point of fact, the MVP argument wasn't offense vs. defense; it was offense vs. defense and offense. (And baserunning.) If the media liked Rodriguez more, there wouldn't have been a debate.

2. Vlad Guerrero, RF, Angels. His back problems cropped up again toward the end of the season, so it's possible this rating should be lower. I can't bring myself to do that.

3. Miguel Tejada, SS, Orioles. He performed at his usual MVP level for half a season before tailing off, for reasons probably beyond his control. I'm prepared to give him benefit of the doubt.

4. Mark Teixeira, 1B, Rangers. He's not a product of his home park. It helps him, but like Todd Helton in his prime, he's a genuinely top-notch hitter.

5. David Ortiz, DH, Red Sox. You could argue for Mike Young here, especially considering his position, or even Travis Hafner, who's about as good a hitter. But neither is likely to luck into as many RBI opportunities as Ortiz.

FIVE BEST HITTERS (NL)

1. Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals. What could I possibly add.

2. Miguel Cabrera, 3B, Marlins. He cuts his strikeouts down a little every year. The way the ball explodes off his bat, all that extra contact is going to add up to a historic season sooner or later. With on-base machine Jeremy Hermida likely to bat second, I'm not terribly concerned about Cabrera's RBI opportunities.

3. Jason Bay, OF, Pirates. Because he's in Pittsburgh, he may not get the ink he deserves. In his second full season, Bay had 32 homers among his 82 extra-base hits, drew 95 walks and was a ridiculous 21-for-22 on steals. He's extraordinarily valuable, and he's just entering his prime.

4. David Wright, 3B, Mets. Does this seem a little premature? Not to me. He gives you everything you could possibly want: He hits for average and power, he draws a good number of walks and he's fast and alert enough to steal 20 bases (he was 17-for-24 last season). That's a hell of a combination.

5. Derrek Lee, 1B, Cubs. It's fair to be skeptical; few saw this coming, and he did tail off ... a little. He still batted .287 with 19 homers after the break and in fact cut down on his strikeouts. More than likely, he has found a new level.

FIVE BEST PITCHERS (AL)

1. Johan Santana, LHP, Twins. Cy Young voters aren't just behind the curve; they barely seem aware the curve exists. Did they honestly believe Bartolo Colon's won-loss made him the better pitcher? Did any of them watch this guy pitch?

2. Roy Halladay, RHP, Blue Jays. Okay, that was just unfair. Let's assume he avoids the freak injury this time.

3. Rich Harden, RHP, Athletics. There's a risk his shoulder problems will recur, but per inning there were few better pitchers in the league last season. He's worth the gamble.

4. Randy Johnson, LHP, Yankees. He sure wasn't the league's fourth-best pitcher last season, and at 42 he's no sure thing to bounce back. But he's also a freak, and the bet is he has one more vintage Johnson season in him.

5. John Lackey, RHP, Angels. A stealth Cy Young candidate, certainly a better bet than Colon. Lackey started using his change more last season and tinkered with his mechanics; one or both apparently fixed his gopher ball problems.

FIVE BEST PITCHERS (NL)

1. Jake Peavy, RHP, Padres. All his rate stats are going in the right direction - his K's climbing, his walks and hits dropping - while he continues to build stamina. His intensity reminds some people of Kevin Brown, and say what you will about Brown but the guy could pitch.

2. Roy Oswalt, RHP, Astros. As pitchers go, he's about as sure a thing as there is in baseball.

3. Carlos Zambrano, RHP, Cubs. In a way, he was a mite disappointing last season; I expected him to compete for a Cy. But "disappointing" is relative. He set career highs for innings (2231/3), strikeouts (209) and strikeout rate (7.6 per nine), dropped his hit rate to 7.7 per nine and had a 2.65 ERA after the All-Star break. I still think he'll win a Cy one day.

4. Chris Carpenter, RHP, Cardinals. The thing is, nothing he did last season screams "fluke." He was better than he was in '04, but not a LOT better; mostly, he was just healthier. I doubt he'll go 21-5 again, but as long as he's healthy he'll be terrific.

5. Jason Schmidt, RHP, Giants. Don't forget about him. He was a Cy Young favorite entering 2005, and when his arm is healthy and mechanics sound, as they seem to be now, he's dominant.

FIVE TO BUY LOW

Dan Haren, RHP, Athletics. His control (barely more than two walks per nine innings) is good for any pitcher, uncanny for a 25-year-old. He finished his rookie season with a 2.76 ERA in August and 2.48 in September. He's a solid 6-5, 220, with no injury history. He's just getting started.

Brian McCann, C, Braves. McCann has more power than he showed in his 59-game stint, and his walk rate is climbing. He could quickly become the class of a weak crop of NL catchers.

Justin Morneau, 1B, Twins. The guy was snakebit last year; he had chicken pox, appendicitis and pneumonia before the season even started, then got beaned the first week of April. He's still just 24, and healthy he's the same guy who looked like a 40-homer threat a year ago.

Brandon Webb, RHP, Diamondbacks. One of baseball's most extreme groundball pitchers, Webb now gets to work in front of Orlando Hudson and Craig Counsell, which might be the NL's best DP combo. He could pitch exactly as well as he did last season and see his ERA drop a half-run.

Rickie Weeks, 2B, Brewers. His .239 average last season hid some encouraging numbers: He showed solid plate discipline (.333 OBP) and good pop (63 extra-base hits at two levels), and he was 25-for-28 stealing between Triple A and the bigs. He's a small step away from being Joe Morgan Jr.

FIVE TO BEWAR

Gustavo Chacin, LHP, Blue Jays. He wouldn't have been a bad Rookie of the Year pick, but he scares me. His peripherals and minor-league record don't support a 3.72 ERA, and it's hard to see how he can continue to excel with so-so stuff and control.

Nomar Garciaparra, 1B, Dodgers. He's not just injury-prone; he isn't all that good anymore. His .466 slugging percentage the past two seasons would be fine for a shortstop but is subpar for a first baseman. Dodger Stadium won't help matters.

Kevin Millwood, RHP, Rangers. The AL's ERA king is moving from Jacobs Field, a severe pitcher's park, to Ameriquest Field, maybe the AL's best hitter's park. Plus he's just not a 2.86 kind of guy; he has been over 4.00 in six of his nine seasons. This will make it seven of 10.

Alfonso Soriano, LF, Nationals. His home-road splits (he slugged 282 points higher at Ameriquest), his move into run-suppressing RFK and his shift to leftfield, where good hitters are a dime a dozen, add up to a steep decline in value.

Jorge Sosa, RHP, Braves. Talk about your aberrations: 13-3 and 2.55 with an 85-64 strikeout-walk ratio? He throws hard, but I'll be shocked if he finishes the season in the rotation.

ADDENDUM: Injury-prone players are injury-prone players, and one healthy season doesn't change that. (Ask anyone who overdrafted J.D. Drew.) Last season, Cliff Floyd, Troy Glaus, Ken Griffey and Nick Johnson played a combined 558 games; they'll be lucky to halve that this year. And be very wary of Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez, who's a serious candidate to blow out his arm.

FIVE BEST ROOKIES

1. Prince Fielder, 1B, Brewers. Little Daddy could hit 30 homers.

2. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners. Two things keep me from rating him No. 1: The Mariners offense, which is lousy; and fear. He's a 19-year-old pitcher, and young pitchers (never mind 19-year-old pitchers) tend to get hurt. That aside, well, shoot; have you seen the guy? He's nuts.

3. Jeremy Hermida, RF, Marlins. Hermida started to answer questions about his home-run power last season, combining for 22 at Double A and the majors after hitting 16 in three minor-league seasons. It won't hurt having Miguel Cabrera behind him.

4. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Nationals. Zimmerman hit the snot out of the ball in his half-season after signing, mostly at Double A, which is awfully impressive. But it was just a half-season, and between his inexperience and RFK's spacious dimensions I'm not convinced his production will match expectations. He is, all the same, a terrific prospect and an excellent keeper pick.

5. Ian Kinsler, 2B, Rangers. With Ameriquest boosting his numbers he could easily bat in the .280-.290 range with 15-20 homers and a dozen steals, pretty valuable for a middle infielder.

FIVE BEST FARM KEEPERS

1. Delmon Young, RF, Devil Rays. Anyone who follows the minors knows I'm not being a homer here. You don't dominate Double A as a teenager the way Young did without being a special player.

2. Howie Kendrick, 2B, Angels. Shortstop Brandon Wood is the top Angel on most prospect lists, but I love Kendrick's sweet swing and contact skills, and he's a level higher than Wood in their farm system.

3. Chris Young, CF, Diamondbacks. He's possibly underrated. He made an impressive adjustment to Double A at age 21, walking more, striking out less and boosting his power numbers (41 doubles, 26 homers) in a tough hitter's park and league. To top it off he was 32-for-38 in steals. I love his chances to be a Bob Abreu-type hitter.

4. Andy Marte, 3B, Indians. He could drive Aaron Boone to the bench or unemployment by midseason.

5. Francisco Liriano, LHP, Twins. Aside from a somewhat narrow frame, Liriano doesn't come with many red flags. He can make people miss with his fastball, slider or change, he throws strikes, he gets plenty of ground balls and he's praised for his work ethic and aptitude.

FIVE BEST DEVIL RAYS

1. Carl Crawford, LF. We still don't know how good he could be.

2. Jorge Cantu, 2B. Rating Cantu high was one pick I got right last year. His batting average could bounce around until he learns a little patience, but you have to like a second baseman with 30-homer power.

3. Scott Kazmir, LHP. Some still worry about his size and mechanics and predict he'll get hurt. But the Rays have handled him well and have one of the best medical and training staffs in baseball. He pitched like a genuine ace in the second half last season and should be able to build on that.

4. Aubrey Huff, 3B. I definitely think he'll bounce back. If he sticks at third, that makes him all the more valuable.

5. Julio Lugo, SS. The consensus was that the Braves opted to deal with the Red Sox because Edgar Renteria was the better player. All I could think was, Really? Renteria's flukey 2003 aside, Lugo has comparable power and plate discipline, steals more bases and has better range. Basically, the consensus is wrong.

[Last modified March 29, 2006, 01:24:18]

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