by Ryan Butler
With Opening Day on the horizon, it’s time to take a look at the goings-on in Spring Training 2011.
My personal feelings about the exhibition season can be summed up in five words: wake me when it’s April. Over the years I have learned that what a player does in the spring usually doesn’t have too much bearing on what he will do once the season starts. One guy I will never forget is John Roskos. In the spring of 2000, Roskos, a castoff from the Marlins, was in camp with the Padres. I think he hit like .875 with 78 homers and 240 RBI that March. Nobody could get the guy out. I was young and naive, and took his outrageous exhibition hitting extravaganza for much more than it was worth. I was not alone, as this previously unknown player became a huge topic of discussion in the local papers and sports talk radio. Even (then) GM Kevin Towers got caught up in RoskosMania, going so far as to call him a “Greek God.”
Roskos was ultimately left off the Opening Day roster, but received a call-up before the end of April. His arrival in San Diego was met with great anticipation by fans who were eager to see him tear the National League a new one. But it was not meant to be. After starting 0-for-18, Roskos managed a total of one hit (a double) in 27 at-bats, and essentially earned himself a permanent minor league vacation.
On the other hand, when a highly regarded prospect has a monster spring, it often means that, at the very least, he will be given the chance to sink-or-swim with the big club. Especially if he received a September call-up the previous season (Chris Sale, Freddie Freeman, Domonic Brown), a good spring showing can often earn him a starting position, until he proves himself unready or unworthy. While I am reticent to spend an early or even a mid-round pick on an unproven hotshot, a mid- late-round gamble isn’t a bad idea. Even if the kid starts the season in the minors, a mid-season promotion can provide your team with an infusion of offense (see Posey, Buster) or K’s and W’s (see Strasburg, Stephen). To me, it’s worth leaving yourself short one player until such a talent debuts.
The most dreaded springtime pitfall for fantasy owners is the injury bug. Especially if you’re in a keeper league, your hope is that if one of your guys has to go down, he goes down before the draft, so that you can adjust your picks accordingly.
Case in point:
A good friend of mine, let’s called him “Wendel,” had both Adam Wainwright and Chase Utley on his keeper list. Lucky for him, he was given fair warning. Obviously, he’s going to drop Wainwright like a bad habit. But handling Utley is a bit trickier. He has a knee problem and has yet to see the playing field this spring. He recently made a super secret visit to an unnamed rehab specialist who gave him a list of new knee excercises to try out. Whether or not this mysterious new training regimen will allow Utley to avoid going under the knife is anybody’s guess, but the high level of uncertainty this late in spring training does not bode well for his future. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if Utley wasn’t one of the best players in the fantasy universe when healthy, but he is. He is also a gamer who always plays his butt off, so I am pulling for him. Even if his return means bad news for the rest of us in Wendel’s league.
This spring, players like Carlos Beltran, Jake Peavy, and Chipper Jones are on the comeback trail. Peavy is a good mid-to-late round gamble, as he is a legit five-category contributor if he comes close to regaining the form that made him the unanimous 2007 NY Cy Young winner. Jones may have value as a reserve or utility player if he manages to rediscover his power stroke, but probably won’t get much action on draft day. Beltran hasn’t played a full season since 2008, he calls CitiField his home, and he has creaky knees. He’s been one of the best fantasy players in the game since coming into the league, but at age 35, don’t count on him being one of your starting outfielders. He should be a late-round pick in most drafts. His upside is still there, albeit limited.
The injuries to players like Ryan Braun, Matt Cain, Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, Justin Morneau, Mike Stanton, Jeremy Hellickson, Adrian Beltre, and Brian Wilson aren’t going to deter most from drafting them, but they may fall a couple of rounds. Fantasy-leaguers like to take a longview of things, and are willing to do without a star player in the early going as he heals from a calf strain or arm soreness.
Ryan Braun- He has already returned to action from a rib injury and will be a top-five pick in most drafts, regardless of what format you’re in.
Matt Cain- He has also returned to action following some elbow soreness. He is a solid No. 2 starter in any format. He’s pitched 200-plus innings in each of the past four seasons. How a guy with his kind of stuff has a 57-62 career record is beyond me. His career ERA (3.45), K/9 (8.3), and WHIP (1.22) would seem to indicate a much better winning percentage. He has been victimized by poor run support over his career, but you figure that has to change at some point, right?
Mike Stanton- Straight keeper! I shudder at the thought of the kind of player this guy is going to be. He was just a baby last season and still managed an AB/HR rate of 16.3 in a not-so-cozy home ballpark down in Florida. He’s been nursing a quadriceps injury this spring, but I say, “Quadriceps? Shmaudriceps!” I don’t see him lasting beyond round No. 10. If you’re in a keeper league, you are stoked, because the ManChild is going to be a bigtime producer for years to come. Major steal here.
Zack Greinke- Looks like he may not be ready until May, which is going to hurt is draft stock, for sure. But he has No. 1 type stuff, as we saw in his Cy Young season in 2009. If he’s still there in round 6 or 7, draft him and stick him on the DL. Then scan the waiver wire for a starting pitcher to fill in until he gets back. He hasn’t been able to do any throwing, so he will pretty much be starting from scratch when he gets back, so you’ll need to be patient.
Adrian Beltre- He’s had a very limited number of ABs this spring, so he may get off to a slow start come April. Texas is a good fit for him, and he’s a top fantasy 3B. If I’m taking him, I would also use a late-round pick on a guy like Juan Uribe, or even Chase Headley, as a back-up in case El Senator’s calf strain flares up on him. But he will produce if healthy. Even though he’s not in a contract year. (zing!)
Justin Morneau- He’s finally resumed baseball activities, and the Twins expect him to be ready by Opening Day. His long layoff will certainly hurt his draft status, and I can see him falling out of the Top 10 1Bs. But if you swoop him up he could pay dividends. Some would argue that you should draft him only as a backup until he shows he is back to his old self, but I disagree. His track record is such that I would much rather spend an early pick on a 3B or a slugging OF and tab Morneau as my starter right out of the gate. His BA may fluctuate greatly from year to year, but the power and production always seem to be there. If he lasts until round 5 or 6, he could be a real steal.
Jeremy Hellickson- A hamstring strain kept him from pitching until March 11, but Hellickson has the Rays’ No. 5 spot on lockdown. He made a strong showing last season in 10 games with Tampa, and while you always expect some trying times with a young SP, he looks like the real deal. I think that if you really like a player’s upside, it’s OK to take him sooner than conventional draft philosophy dictates. But don’t get too crazy. If he’s there in the mid-rounds and you already have at least two good SPs on your roster, take him then, but not before. I love him as an investment in keeper leagues.
Brian Wilson- What in the rib cage is going on this spring? His is the latest injury to come across, though, to me, all it does is shuffle the Top-five closer deck a little. If you had your eye on Wilson, you may now go with Heath Bell or Joakim Soria instead. Maybe Jonathan Papelbon slides into Wilson’s slot. As flaky and weird and annoying as he is, Wilson is a stud, and will be drafted as such. If you’re lucky enough to be picking when the run on closers starts, snatch him up and be patient.
Shaun Marcum- There is cause for concern anytime a starting pitcher leaves a game early because of stiffness or soreness in his arm and neck. Marcum himself doesn’t seem too worried about it, and since he is a mid-late round pick, this doesn’t necessarily preclude from gambling on him, anyway. But if someone like Jaime Garcia, Phil Hughes, or Ian Kennedy is around when you’re on the clock and looking for a No. 3 starter, they warrant serious consideration over Marcum. Keep a close eye on the Brewers’ injury report to see how he progresses.