Welcome back to the ESPN Fantasy spring training blog, a daily compendium of what's happening in baseball's preseason! Since pitchers and catchers just reported over the weekend -- and really, shouldn't that in itself be some sort of holiday? -- there obviously haven't been any games yet. Of course, that doesn't mean there hasn't been any news. Our spring training blog will run each weekday leading up to the actual start of regular-season games, a roundup of news relating to fantasy baseball you can get in one tidy place.
As for our 2009 debut spring training blog, we've got lots of news to get to. To me, the first two weeks of what happens in Florida and Arizona are mostly talk. The managers discuss how good the players look, as everyone lost weight, you know. All teams are contenders. The players talk about how hard they worked in December, what monster numbers they're capable of. And the media eats it all up.
Once in a while a really useful nugget exposes itself, like how in the winter of 2000 Bret Boone had bulked up. I must have thought then, "Bret Boone, eh? How wonderful for him!" Then we all ignored him on draft day and he did something no active player has ever done, hitting .331 with 37 homers and 141 RBIs in the same season. A-Rod has never done this. That must say something. Since then, I never ignored a throwaway quote like that. It might not have made me draft Andruw Jones when he said he was in for a big contract season (thankfully), but at least I took notice of it.
Quotes are big in the early stages of spring training, and one of the things I look for are what managers and players say about how lineups might look. Ultimately, what a manager says on Valentine's Day might not happen, but it's interesting to think about the repercussions. Baseball analysts proved years ago that the smart way to build a lineup is to put high on-base percentage fellas at the top, set the table for the power and do the best you can at the bottom of the order. Few managers do this, which is why you'll see Willy Taveras types leading off just because they're fast, and decent on-base guys like Shin-Soo Choo seldom get to hit near the top of the order because they don't steal bases. Nick Johnson has never held the leadoff spot in a major league game, despite his .396 career on-base percentage.
Anyway, let's finally cut to the chase: Arguably the top three shortstops in baseball -- fantasy and real life -- come from the NL East. Not only are they top-10 fantasy players, but leadoff hitters who electrify their teams with degrees of power and lots of speed. In the past week, however, it's been rumored two of those three might not be leadoff hitters this season, or at least their managers are toying with the notion of moving them. Don't fret, Phillies fans, Jimmy Rollins is the one staying at the top.
Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes might be moving, however, and I have differing thoughts on whether they should. In the case of Ramirez, I can't say moving him down to third in the order is a surprise. Not only has Ramirez -- to many the No. 1 pick in fantasy this season -- stolen an average of 46 bases in his first three seasons with a cumulative .379 on-base percentage (.387 while leading off), but he's hit 79 home runs. He's Florida's best player, easily, regardless of the position he plays, and many believe he can develop more power. Moving him to the No. 3 lineup spot would only enforce his greatness, and, assuming the Marlins could get the Nos. 1 and 2 hitters on base, would help the offense.
Statistically, Ramirez would knock in a lot more runs than the 70 he has averaged his first three seasons, assuming his power doesn't slide. There's little reason to think it would. Also, Ramirez would probably run less. His steals declined in 2008 from 51 to 35, and certainly hitting in the middle of the order this would seem to provide less reason to steal bases. Last season, 14 teams received at least 30 stolen bases from their leadoff spot. No teams got that many from No. 3 hitters.
Ramirez has 1,740 of his 2,101 career plate appearances in the leadoff spot, with an OPS 155 points better there than the 246 plate appearances in the No. 3 spot. Is that really enough proof to conclude Ramirez will struggle anywhere but leading off? I don't buy it. Ramirez is going to hit no matter where he is in the lineup, and I could see a 35-100-25 season looming if the Marlins do move him to the No. 3 spot, ahead of lesser hitters Jorge Cantu and Dan Uggla. The drop in steals would lower Ramirez's value a tad, just because stolen bases are so much tougher to get than home runs, even in this new post-steroid age, but not enough to move him from a top-3 spot in fantasy.
For Ramirez to drop in the batting order, it would be incumbent upon rookie Cameron Maybin to have a big spring and prove he can get on base. From what I'm seeing, many fantasy owners are skeptical Maybin's breakout season will occur in 2008, mainly because they see his prodigious strikeout totals in the minors as too big an obstacle. I think he has double-digit-power potential right away, with at least 25 steals, but an on-base percentage in the .350 range would be asking for a lot. Still, if Ramirez moves down, move Maybin up your rankings, because it would be a sign the Marlins really have confidence in their new center fielder.
As for the Mets, the new leadoff hitter would be second baseman Luis Castillo. I don't deny Castillo is capable of hitting .300, with a strong on-base percentage in the .370 range, and maybe 20 or so stolen bases, but I have doubts Reyes has the power to hit third in any batting order, especially this one. First of all, a No. 3 hitter doesn't have to hit a ton of home runs. Joe Mauer of the Twins might never hit 20 home runs. But if Mauer was on these Mets, I think he'd lead off. That's where Reyes belongs. His career slugging percentage is .436, and his on-base percentage is good enough to warrant him leading off.
In Mets manager Jerry Manuel's potential lineup alteration, Carlos Beltran would move to the No. 2 spot in the order. Beltran is a terrific fantasy player; he's not on Reyes' level as a top-five pick, because he doesn't run as much, but he runs enough to be a second-round pick overall. There are so many fantasy implications if the Mets change their order, I don't know where to begin. Castillo would probably run more, if he's able, hitting ahead of Reyes, but then we wouldn't see Reyes run as much. Would he be a top-five player with only 40 steals? I don't think he would, and that would be a shame. David Wright's production would be affected if he doesn't hit third. Ultimately, I don't expect Reyes to hit third, or Beltran to bat second. The Mets have a strong lineup, and don't need to make wholesale changes.
Where a hitter bats in the lineup can absolutely affect his fantasy numbers, so obviously keep an eye on not only the Marlins and Mets, but other leadoff hitters who have enough power to warrant moving them into a run-producing slot. Lou Piniella could move Alfonso Soriano down past the middle of the order, which could slow him down even more than we've seen in his two Chicago seasons, but could restore him to 100-RBI levels. The Indians haven't seemed at all interested in moving Grady Sizemore down in the order, but I think the situation is pretty similar to the Marlins. Sizemore is the team's top hitter, and, like Ramirez, could make his 30/30 run hitting anywhere. Anyway, keep an eye on lineups. We'll be hearing a lot more about them in the coming six weeks.
Other notes from around camps:
-- Brewers third baseman Bill Hall partially tore his left calf muscle before the weekend, and initial reports had him missing four to six weeks. Hall now claims he'll return to the field before March. The Brewers can afford to be cautious, since they have options to play third base: both major league ones like Craig Counsell and Mike Lamb and intriguing minor league choices like Mat Gamel. Plus, Hall has hit 29 home runs in the past two seasons, with a low .240 batting average, the latter stat making him free-agent material in most leagues. It's possible the Brewers are viewing Hall as a platoon player at this point, a Rich Aurilia-type who only hits lefties, so in NL-only leagues, be careful about expecting Hall to reach even 2008 numbers.
-- There was weekend news for Josh Fields, and we're talking about both the potential White Sox third baseman as well as the young Mariners phenom pitcher. In Chicago, the power-hitting Fields has been nominated as the front-runner for the job by manager Ozzie Guillen, ahead of Dayan Viciedo and Wilson Betemit. Fields had a lost 2008, but Joe Crede won't be back and the 23 home runs Fields hit in 100 games in 2007 shouldn't be forgotten. As for Joshua Fields in Seattle, he finally signed with the team that drafted him in the first round a year ago. He's 23 and will need time in the minors, but seeing what the Seattle bullpen looks like, it's easy to project Fields making an impact by the end of this coming season. I mean, Miguel Batista might end up closing!
-- Speaking of closers, Tigers manager Jim Leyland told the Detroit Free Press he plans to avoid a closer-by-committee system, which would seem to favor newcomer Brandon Lyon, since most people believe he'll get the first chance to close. Lyon could lose the job at any time, but he seems a wise late-round gamble, especially with the way Todd Jones was used the past few seasons. Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney are also in the picture.
--The Rockies have plenty of outfield options, and early indications are the left-field competition will come down to Ian Stewart, Carlos Gonzalez and Seth Smith. Stewart told The Denver Post he wanted to play the position right away in the spring, rather than getting thrown into left field just before the regular season. There's little question that Stewart, who is eligible at third base and -- in some leagues -- second base, has the bat to win this job, making him a sleeper pick. Remember, the Rockies play home games in Coors Field.
-- Red Sox outfielder J.D. Drew has been experiencing back stiffness. In other news, the sun rises in the east. Look, if you don't know by now that Drew is an injury risk and draft him accordingly, you just haven't paid attention. The Red Sox really don't have much outfield depth, but ... oh wait, they signed Brad Wilkerson recently. My apologies.
-- The World Series champion Phillies have four rotation spots settled, and four others in the running for the fifth slot. Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee told reporters that Kyle Kendrick is the leading contender based on his 21 wins the past two seasons. He didn't discuss how ugly some of those wins were, as Kendrick's career ERA is 4.78, or how his second-half ERA in 2008 was 7.59. I think the Phillies would like Kendrick to improve his command, miss a few bats and win this job, though fantasy owners still shouldn't get too excited. Carlos Carrasco has the most upside of the candidates, but likely will start the season in Triple-A. Chan Ho Park and J.A. Happ are also in the mix, but both have relief experience.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His new book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.