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Ask Rotoman: Feb. 15, 2006

Fantasy 411

Send your toughest fantasy questions to Rotoman.

ROTOMAN'S TOP 10: 2005 Slugging percentage allowed (lowest):
Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, A.J. Burnett, Carlos Zambrano, Johan Santana, Andy Pettitte, Chris Carpenter, Dontrelle Willis, John Patterson, Barry Zito.


Dear Rotoman:

Would you draft Jason Bay ahead of Bobby Abreu this year? I'm preparing for a draft in 6x6 Roto (with OPS counted).

-- "Bay Watch"

Dear Watch:

Here's what these two did last year:


The prices don't include the OPS, which would clearly favor Bay. Of course, Bay Watch isn't looking backward. He's looking at this year coming up.

Projected for 2006:


The prices aren't what those stats earn, but rather what I think you'll want/need to pay for each guy this year. At these prices, I think you'll have a shot at Abreu but someone else will get Bay. Which is how I think you want it. Before you go all Hasselhoff on me, here's why.

1) Bay turned 27 in 2005, and collected his 1,000th at-bat (and 155th walk). The year Abreu turned 27 he collected his 2,400th at-bat (and 422nd walk). When Abreu was Bay's age, he'd already had three years as good as Bay's 2005 and another better than his own 2005. In general, players who succeed in the Major Leagues at an earlier age have longer and more productive careers. Advantage, Abreu.

2) Abreu's 2005 numbers were down because he hurt his shoulder and struggled with his swing in the second half. Before the All-Star break (and his win in the Home Run Derby) he was hitting .307 with 18 homers, 21 steals and a .955 OPS. He became mortal after the break, batting .260 with six homers, 10 steals and a .787 OPS. He's getting older so it wouldn't be surprising if he ran less than last year, but it would be even more surprising if he didn't resume the power surge he showed in the first half of 2005. As players age they usually hit for more power and steal fewer bases.

3) Bay had a career year last year. He walked more and hit for more power than he ever had in the Minor Leagues. In fact, he increased his walk rate over the previous year by 50 percent. Players who experience big swings in one direction one year usually bounce back in the other direction the next. I took a look at how hitters performed the year after, grouping them by their walk rates and splitting them into three groups: Those who walked much more, those who walked about the same and those who walked much less. Players who walked much less one year improved their OBP by about six points the next year. Players who walked about the same had a similar OBP to the year before. Players who walked much more one year saw their OBP drop by .014 points the next. Players with a big increase in walks one year saw their home run rate drop by about six percent the next year, too. Bay had a big increase in walks last year, and should be expected to take a step back this year.

4) Point No. 3 simply reinforces the notion that baseball performances generally regress to the mean. A big improvement one year isn't often followed by improvement the next.

5) The Phillies scored 807 runs last year. The Pirates scored 680. Bay did wonderfully in a constrained environment, but it's hard to see his team being much more productive this year, leaving him with little room to improve. Absent the injury last year, Abreu would have bested Bay in runs and RBIs, as well as SB. As it was, he equaled him in the production stats. Because of his team context he has the edge in those categories, certainly, and may at this point have as much power, too.

For these reasons I think it's fair to give Bobby Abreu a slight edge for 2006, even in a 6x6 league that uses OBP. But Abreu's lead is small because of the players' ages and the increasing chance that the thickening (don't worry Bobby, it happens to all of us) Abreu will get hurt. Some players actually do put consecutive years of improvement together, and Bay is the right age to do that. Still, I'll stick with the pedigree for another year and let someone else take the chance on the late bloomer. The important thing to remember here is that Bay is unlikely to improve on his 2005 numbers.

In a keeper league the rationale would be reversed. Abreu will have the better career and has a slightly better chance to have the better 2005, but in two or three years he is expected to decline, while Bay's youth gives him a brighter horizon.



Dear Rotoman:

Is B.J. Upton going to do anything this year? I love the hype about him and believe that Tampa Bay is a team to grow on. What can we count on? And while you're at it, how about Delmon Young and that TB outfield?

-- "Bedeviled Rays"

Dear Bedeviled:

Since the new ownership team led by Stuart Sternberg took over in St. Petersburg last fall, the front office has been reorganized (Vince Naimoli left, Chuck LaMar got his pink slip), a new manager (Joe Maddon) has been hired, parking will be free at Tropicana Field in 2006 (seniors love that) and a slogan has been selected for the new season: "Rebuilding the Dream."

One big part of that rebuilding is finding a way to get Upton, a budding star, into the lineup. Last year in Triple-A, Upton hit .301 and stole 41 bases, which is enough to make any fantasy leaguer sit up and take notice. Of course, we've been waiting with bated breath since Upton was taken with the second pick of the 2002 draft. The beautiful things about Upton are that he's fast, he has power (62 extra-base hits last year) and he will take a walk. The problem is that he made 53 errors last year playing shortstop in Triple-A.

Oddly, he doesn't seem to see that as a problem. His agent made a statement in September that Upton expected to play shortstop in the Majors, and if Tampa Bay wasn't planning to play him there, then they should trade him. At the winter meetings, the revamped team met with Upton and told him he was their shortstop of the future. They've hired Ozzie Smith and Jimy Williams to work with him, which isn't stinting. But it also isn't much different than what they did last year.

Relying on historical Minor League defensive numbers when we have them is a dubious exercise. Only recently have we been able to collect a deep vein of Minor League scouting reports we can call upon to track how players' defense has progressed as they moved up through the Minors. But even so, we know that improvement isn't unprecedented. Rafael Furcal was a very inconsistent fielder when he was younger (though older than he represented at the time) and in the Minors, but he has become a Major League regular.

Tampa Bay's favorite Hall of Famer, Wade Boggs, arrived late in the Major Leagues, maybe because he wasn't such a good third basemen when he was young, but he is famed for having worked hard and gotten better.

Upton has been compared to Derek Jeter, who reportedly wasn't a great defensive player in the Minors, a judgment supported by his passable, albeit occasionally brilliant Major League defensive performance. But Jeter's problem hasn't been errors; rather, it's been his lack of range -- a deficiency of defensive instinct, maybe. Upton's problem may be, as some have reported, that he simply gets sloppy, but it isn't a good sign that he wasn't able to focus last year when a minimum level of competence would have immediately gotten him promoted to the big leagues and likely stardom.

No matter how much Upton improves in the offseason, he's unlikely to start the season in the Major Leagues. Delaying his return (he actually played for two months in Tampa Bay in 2004) to the bigs until sometime in May would delay his arbitration eligibility for an additional year (though with the basic agreement up this year there is a good chance those rules could change, meaning that, to be safe, the Devil Rays may decide to keep him in the Minors longer).

Which is why I'm not sure you can count on anything. Dismal defensive performance in Durham in April will force the team to either change his position or strand him in the Minors for another year while the Devil Rays hope he figures out how to keep his eye on the ball. That means he'll likely be an excellent reserve-round pick for teams that don't allow drafting of Minor Leaguers. In auction leagues where you can buy and bench him at the start of the season, unless news breaks in Spring Training (and the Devil Rays trade Julio Lugo), cheap is the way to go. There's plenty of potential here, but also a fair chance he's not going to get promoted until midseason, or later.

Another building block of the dream is Delmon Young, who was the Rays' first rounder in 2003, when they had the first overall pick. Young made headlines last September when he complained to the press that Tampa Bay wasn't promoting him to the big club when rosters expanded in order to save some money, and he promised he would leave the organization at the first opportunity. This was before the regime change, and Young has since had second thoughts about those statements.

He's coming off a great season in Double-A as a teenager, where he won the Southern League MVP award, and though he struggled a little after arriving in Triple-A, no one thinks he's going to have problems hitting in the big leagues. It just may not happen this year, or at least not at the start of this year.

The problem is that Tampa Bay has a lot of players. Carl Crawford is the team's star and an outfield fixture, as is Rocco Baldelli, when he's healthy enough to play. Jonny Gomes opened eyes last year with his power and surprising speed. Joey Gathright is a slap-hitting speedster who generally works the strike zone, trying to find every advantage and way to get on base. And then there are Aubrey Huff and Travis Lee, veterans who can hit (Huff more than Lee) and also play first base.

Not counting Young, that's six players for five positions, so it makes sense for Tampa Bay to go easy with their young phenom (who walked just 29 times last year in 587 plate appearances), allowing him to develop under less pressure. But Tampa Bay entered the offseason with a plan to move Lugo and Huff, so despite their recent declaration that they were out of the trade market, one or the other could be dealt at any time.

Not having a track record to judge the new front office, it's hard to read the organization's intentions. Did they close trade talks because they don't want to make a deal? Or because they want to make a better deal? Almost certainly they're trying to leverage their disinterest into better offers, but whether their expectations are realistic (they want to move Huff's salary, but not pay his salary to receive talent in return) remains to be seen.

The key to everything this spring is Baldelli, who was coming off knee surgery last year and screwed up his elbow, forcing Tommy John surgery last summer. He has yet to swing a bat, at least seriously, so just how this rather intuitive and athletic ballplayer responds to the injury and the long layoff is unexplored territory. If Baldelli is ready, there is no room for Gathright in the TB lineup, but Gathright will be the team's basestealing center fielder until Baldelli returns. Along with his most-likely-to-be-traded status, Gathright is a real wild card this year.

As for Young, unless he burns through Spring Training, he's unlikely to start the year with the Devil Rays, and it's certainly possible that he won't join them until September. Still, even if he appears to be buried in March, he's worth a bid. That's how fresh his talent is.

The other item the new Tampa Bay owners are undertaking is a name change for the Devil Rays. It seems they think a brighter name will offer new hope to a franchise brimming with talent. The Tampa Bay Rays seems to be the leading choice.



JOSH WILLINGHAM: He just escaped Class A in 2003, is turning 27 this week (Feb. 17), has only 57 big league plate appearances and yet everyone seems to love him. Me included. Part of it might be last year's massive numbers in Triple-A, which were certainly inflated in Albuquerque's hitter-friendly Isotopes Park. But in his favor, Willingham has shown good power, excellent bat control and fine strike zone recognition as he's progressed. That progress was slowed because he took up catching after the 2002 season, not because of his bat. If he ends up a regular catcher on the Marlins this season, I'm sure he'll think the extra wait was worth it. (Warning: He's known as a hard worker but not a great defensive player. His manager, former catcher Joe Girardi, says if Willingham struggles behind the plate, he'll play in left field. There is some risk his defense will limit his playing time, especially if he doesn't dazzle right off the bat.)

JAMEY CARROLL: I usually get excited about any Colorado backup infielder, but Carroll has so little power or speed it's hard to see him being able to take advantage of whatever opportunity might arise a mile high.



A lot of the projections out there don't seem to think that A.J. Burnett will have a problem moving from a pitcher's park in the NL to a hitter's park in the AL. What do you think?

-- "Hunka Burnett Love"

Dear Hunka:

The knocks on Burnett are that he's below .500 for his career, he's leaving a great pitcher's park, his strikeout rate on the road last year wasn't nearly as good as his strikeout rate at home, he has durability issues, he was bad in September and he uses initials instead of a real name. Let's take these on one by one.

His lifetime record is 49-50. In the four seasons he's pitched more than 100 innings, his W/L record is 42-39. He was 0-2 in 2003 before he was shut down for having a completely torn UCL in his pitching elbow. In those four 100-plus inning seasons, the Marlins' overall record was six games under .500. It's hard to see how Burnett's record means anything more than that he hasn't been able to overcome his mediocre surroundings.

Marlins games at Dolphins Stadium had 15 percent fewer runs scored than Marlins games on the road in 2005. This was a little stingier than in preceding years, but it's fair to say that Burnett's home park helped him. The numbers bear that out, too. In 80 innings at home last year, he had a 2.95 ERA, while in 120 innings on the road, he had a 3.80 mark. He missed a home start in May due to elbow tenderness, and was shut down before his last start (also at home) because he ripped manager Jack McKeon and the organization. Anyway, a 3.80 ERA isn't all that bad.

At home last year, he struck out 10.39 per nine innings pitched and walked 3.46. On the road, he struck out 7.16 per nine while walking 3.35. It's a substantial difference, though in 2004 he had rates at home and away that were pretty much the same, and wound up posting a 2.80 ERA at home against a 5.09 mark on the road. There were 21 percent more strikeouts at Dolphins Stadium than on the road last year, though much of the difference can be attributed to visiting pitchers. Neither Dontrelle Willis nor Josh Beckett had any home/road strikeout difference. Regardless of what caused the split for Burnett, 7.1 K/9 IP isn't that bad.

After missing that start in May because of elbow tenderness, Burnett went on a terrific tear, winning six straight games from the All Star break into mid-August. He struggled in September, but -- two years removed from Tommy John surgery -- he threw four complete games, topped 200 IP and has to be considered healthy.

You could blame weariness for his fade in September, but clearly he wasn't happy. As the season wore down to the close, he said, "It's depressing around here. … It's like they expect us to mess up, and when we do they chew our [rear ends] out. There's no positive thing around here for anybody." After a fine season, what do five bad starts in seven games spell? Frustration.

A.J. stands for Allan James, but is much cooler.

Pitchers moving from the NL to the AL have to face the DH instead of the pitcher, and they see the average runs per game rise from 4.44 to 4.75. Or in terms of ERA, the average mark goes from 4.22 to 4.35. But Burnett also faces the challenge of moving to a neutral park from one that severely suppressed run production. For these two reasons, it wouldn't be a surprise if Allan James struggled some, but I think he's going to be OK.

Burnett's a dominating pitcher, which means fewer balls in play which means fewer park effects. He's entering his third year after the Tommy John surgery, when any loss of physical confidence should have been assuaged, and when any conditioning or fine-tuning issues should have been addressed. Based on Burnett's 2005 campaign, they have been. And he just turned 29 in January, well within the prime time for pitchers to have their breakout season (after the early overuse, after the T.J., after they've learned how to get by without their best stuff).

Burnett's there, ready to finally silence the naysayers and satisfy the yeahsayers. If only it were that easy. Last year, coming off his early return and subsequent struggles following surgery, Burnett cost $14. He earned $17, which meant no one was unhappy with him. But in spite of all I've said, I don't think you can bump his price up much. He is going to a league with more hitting, to a division with more hitters, to a home park in which runs are easier to score.

Burnett is the perfect guy to try to grab if your league mates are fully aware that he's going to have a tougher time of it this year and they lay off. But rest assured that A.J. is no C.H. (Chan Ho), and if you can grab him for last year's price or less, you've found a risk worth taking.

Until next week,

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