Saturday, February 4, 2006

Top 10 MLB Players Under the ‘06 Radar

By Mike Round

With the Super Bowl signifying the end of the pro football season this Sunday, it's time for attention to switch to the upcoming baseball season, which some of us are already guilty of.

I'm in the wife's doghouse at present — again. Not content with spending the winter fine-tuning my fantasy draft cheat sheets, on a walk with my 6-year-old daughter last week, I let my baseball obsession get the better of me. She innocently enquired when winter would end and what season came next.

Without thinking of the repercussions, I replied, "Winter ends when pitchers and catchers report, and then it's spring." Later, this was relayed to her mother, who corrected my error by mentioning something about wearing white again and sandals. At present, more children is listed as questionable.

The point I'm making is that it's never too early to get yourself in the right frame of mind for draft day. A winter trade can change the fantasy value of more than the players involved, so don't get caught playing catch-up the day before the draft. It's not easy ploughing through rosters in the early hours of the morning in the hope of spotting a potential bargain.

The early rounds are fairly easy to predict, but your team can be upgraded from the middle rounds onwards if you fine-tune your thinking. You can avoid having to spend hours scouring the waiver wire by taking the latter rounds just as seriously as the first four or five. Despite some spotty results in recent years in my own leagues (I blame injuries, of course), I still believe the latter rounds will make or break a draft.

So, onto my own predictions for a breakout season.

1. Chris Young (R), SP, San Diego Padres

At first, I couldn't believe the Rangers waved goodbye to the 6'8" righty in the trade that got Adam Eaton. Then I thought about it and it makes sense. Young is a fly ball biased pitcher and those can get seriously punished in Arlington. The Ranger brass thought Young got a bit lucky during his hot spell in '05 and noted after the break his ERA ballooned to 4.26. The spacious outfield in Petco will be more to his liking and he notched up a respectable 137 Ks in 164.2 innings. The Padres don't score like the Rangers, but they'll win enough games to keep his owners happy.

2. Chris Ray (R), RP, Baltimore Orioles

The perfect example of how a trade can suddenly elevate a player's value who wasn't involved in the actual trade. Ray had next to no fantasy value last year, but with B.J. Ryan taking the free agent dollars from Toronto, Ray is suddenly a relatively hot commodity. He's only had 41 appearances in the majors, but acquitted himself with great credit, striking out 43 batters in less than 41 innings and posting a respectable 2.66 ERA. The front office was so sure he's the man for the ninth that they made no attempt to bring in a vet after Ryan walked. The only worries are that he blew four save attempts last year and he walks too many. These problems can be corrected with experience.

3. Matt Cain (R), SP, San Francisco Giants

Felix Hernandez will be snagged in the early rounds by those dazzled by his September audition, but don't despair. Fellow '05 rookie Matt Cain will hang around long enough to represent the value that Hernandez doesn't. Cain came up in late August and posted a less-than earth shattering 2-1 record. Look below the surface and Cain actually had a better ERA than Hernandez (2.33 to 2.67) and a better WHIP (0.93 to 1.00). Admittedly, Felix threw nearly twice as many innings as Cain, but nevertheless, Cain showed enough to be a nice pickup. His nine-inning gem against the Cubs in a 2-1 win was the highlight of his seven starts. The Giants took Cain in the first round in 2002 and it looks a shrewd selection.

4. Brandon Webb (R), SP, Arizona Diamondbacks

Webb was once firmly on everybody's radar screen after a fine 2003 when he came within a whisker of taking the NL Rookie of the Year title. A 2.84 ERA with opponents hitting a measly .212 against him put him firmly on everybody's wanted list. Since then, things have slipped. In '04, he only won seven games and had a .248 BAA. Last year, he won more games (14), but the K rate dropped again and the BAA went up to .265. But there are reasons for optimism. Arizona play in a weak division, so wins won't be a problem and the infield defense looks a lot stronger with Orlando Hudson at second, a big plus for a pitcher who gets a fair number of groundball outs. If Webb hits his '03 form again, he'll be a bargain pickup.

5. Chris Capuano (L), SP, Milwaukee Brewers

Capuano has had three seasons in the majors on two not very good teams — Arizona and Milwaukee — but still has a winning record (26-24). He's poised, on a better Milwaukee team, to make the big break out this year. The stuff is there, including a heater that touches almost 100 mph on the gun, and he's now well-versed on NL hitters. He strikes out over seven batters per nine innings. The only worries are the walks (91 last year) and the fact that he threw 219 innings in '05, a hefty rise in workload. Despite this, I want him on my roster if he's there in the middle rounds.

6. Khalil Greene, SS, San Diego Padres

Greene has had two full seasons in the majors and he's not fulfilled his potential at the plate as yet, although he has a nice glove. For a first round pick (13th overall) in 2002, he has a lot left to prove. If anything, the numbers took a slight decline last year. Both seasons have seen spells on the DL and that's a worry for a young player with few miles on the clock. But, given an injury-free year on a decent hitting team, Greene could hit .280 plus with 85 RBIs and 75 runs. Not a bad return if you grab him in the latter rounds. He's no Miguel Tejada, but he's no Adam Everett, either.

7. Matt Holliday, LF, Colorado Rockies

As usual with Colorado hitters, he's awesome at home. He hits .348 in Coors and a hundred points less on the road in his short career. His home OPS is 1.005. Those 75 games or so in Coors will seriously help your batting average if you can afford to bench him on the road. With only two full seasons in the majors, he could learn to hit away from the rarefied air of Denver. Don't go too soon on him, but if he's there late and you need a fourth outfielder, he's worth a punt.

8. Grady Sizemore, CF, Cleveland Indians

Sizemore wasn't on anybody's radar screen last year, but it will be a different scenario in '06. You won't see Sizemore still available after the third or fourth rounds in any draft, but he'll be worth a high pick. He's 23, has speed, decent power, and plays on a hot young ball club. Last year's numbers really catch the eye for a second-year player. Expect a 30-30 season with a batting average around .300 and 90 plus RBIs if he stays healthy. The base running could improve (10 CS in 32 attempts last year), but that's a minor quibble.

9. Chad Tracy, 3B, Arizona Diamondbacks

On a mediocre ball club in '05, Tracy really stepped it up in his second season in the majors. This year could be even better with more men on base for him. A robust .308 average with 27 homers and 72 RBIs was a quantum leap for Tracy from his 143 games in his rookie year. With even minimal improvement, he'll crack 30 home runs and get close to 100 RBIs. The one reservation is that he's slated to be the every day third baseman, a position new to him. If it doesn't distract him at the plate, he'll be a monster and make everybody in Phoenix forget the Troy Glaus experiment. Don't leave it too late to snag him.

10. Mike Jacobs, 1B, Florida Marlins

This is a real flyer as the Marlins figure to be poor in '06. The roster has been gutted (again) by owner Jeff Loria, who wants either a new stadium, funded by the hard-pressed taxpayer unsurprisingly, or a new city to play ball in. With one or two exceptions, the Marlins will put out a AAA team, so don't figure to win much except when Dontrelle Willis is on the mound. Nevertheless, they will score runs and play hard, so don't necessarily avoid Marlin players at all costs. Jacobs looked awesome in the few games we saw him in '05 (30) with the Mets. Traded in the Carlos Delgado deal, Jacobs will be the everyday 1B in Florida and he could make a serious impact. In those 30 games, he slugged 11 homers at .310. He won't keep that pace up in the cavernous spaces of Dolphins Stadium, but he could represent a nice second option at 1B.

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