In sports, you never hear winners say "it's just a game." To winners, it's about destiny, higher powers, overcoming mounting obstacles and all that other poetry. To those who just watched their team lose, though, the game is suddenly trivial.
Right. And it doesn't matter when kitchen appliances are being thrown at the TV, either.
At the core, "it's just a game" is really just the loser's anthem.
No sport is truly "just a game." Nobody forgets losing, and everybody holds grudges -- especially toward players who come up short.
Fantasy managers are no different. Those who paid top dollar for Chris Carpenter last year won't be in the forgiving mood this spring. After all, the Cardinals ace threw only six innings before undergoing season-ending surgery. And owners who rode Tampa Bay's Carlos Pena to the promised land won't forget the year's feel-good story anytime soon.
This time of year, the real challenge is letting bygones be bygones. Focusing only on players who succeeded yesterday won't get you anywhere today -- particularly in baseball, where numbers fluctuate greatly from year to year. Identifying comeback and breakout candidates is not only important; it's often what separates winners from that "it's just a game" crowd.
So, which players deserve forgiveness in 2008?
Rickie Weeks, 2B, Brewers: While things panned out for just about every other young Brewer last year, Weeks crumbled. A poor start sent him packing to Triple-A Nashville in late July, prompting even his most hardcore supporters to abandon ship. Fortunately, that's what everyone will remember most about Weeks going into draft day. That he played through much of the first half with wrist problems will almost certainly be forgotten, as will his impressive performance after returning from Nashville (he delivered a .273 average, 11 homers and 15 steals over the season's final two months). Completely healthy, the talented Mr. Weeks is well worth another look at second base.
Zack Greinke, SP, Royals: It's been a strange and unusual journey for Greinke, who sat out much of 2006 for personal reasons before splitting last season between the rotation and bullpen in Kansas City. For those reasons, some may view him as a risky pick. Nonsense. If anything, Greinke enters '08 stronger than ever after posting a 1.85 ERA over his final seven starts a year ago. Remember, not long ago, scouts envisioned him using his remarkably advanced plate command to anchor the Royals' staff one day. Having come full circle, Greinke is ready to step into that role. Draft day may be your last chance to buy him at a reasonable price.
Wandy Rodriguez, SP, Astros: Pimple-faced campers aren't the only ones who get homesick. A slew of big league pitchers unraveled on the road last year. Chief among them was Rodriguez, who thrived at home (6-3, 2.94 ERA) but looked like a deer in the headlights away from Houston, where his ERA swelled to 6.37. The good news is that he's more than capable of overcoming his split-personality disorder. Rodriguez works the zone well, has upped his strikeout rate in each of the last two seasons and is on the cusp of 500 career innings. Consider scooping up Rodriguez, who could put together a mini-breakthrough along the lines of 15 wins and a sub-4.00 ERA.
Jeremy Hermida, OF, Marlins: True, injuries held Hermida back over his first couple of seasons in Florida. But a healthy Hermida hammered home a .340 average, 10 homers and a .555 slugging percentage after the All-Star break last year, offering evidence that maybe he won't be the next J.D. Drew. Such blistering numbers give reason to believe that 2008 could be the year he puts it all together. Despite all the expectations that come with being a first-round pick -- particularly one who broke into the bigs as a 21-year-old -- Hermida is only 24. Double his second-half numbers, and you've got yourself a stud at a bargain value.
Hank Blalock, 3B, Rangers: The dust has firmly settled since Blalock was considered a bona fide sleeper. Years of disappointment have turned him into just another third baseman in the crowd. However, there are a few reasons why Blalock makes for a intriguing post-hype sleeper. First, this is his age-27 season, when players most commonly break out. And he enters it with considerable momentum, coming off a sparkling September (.313 AVG, 5 HR, 17 RBIs, .656 SLG) after spending four months sidelined by a shoulder injury. Also encouraging were Blalock's gains against southpaws, who had given the left-handed-hitting slugger fits for most of his career. The talent and experience are there for Blalock to erupt, making draft day the perfect time to buy low.
Miguel Tejada, SS, Astros: It's been a rough go for Tejada, who struggled through his worst season last year in part because a fractured wrist that sidelined him for more than a month. More recently, his name popped up in the Mitchell Report, and there's a chance he'll have to testify on Capitol Hill. The one bright spot is the trade to Houston, where Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence will be protecting the former Oriole instead of Nick Markakis, Melvin Mora and Kevin Millar. Throw in that short left-field porch in Minute Maid Park, and a resurgence along the lines of .300-30-100 isn't so far-fetched for the 31-years-young shortstop.