- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Sometimes we do have to give the managers some credit. The Dodgers' Joe Torre hasn't been popular with fantasy owners for the way he's handled his outfield, and surely Dusty Baker in Cincinnati didn't make new pals when he jettisoned hot prospect Jay Bruce to the lovely town of Louisville. Of course, these managers aren't alone in earning disdain in the fantasy world.
About two weeks ago, when White Sox speedster Jerry Owens appeared to be fully healed from his groin injury, I surmised that manager Ozzie Guillen was going to not only place one-trick pony Owens -- though the trick of stealing a base every other game is a really good one -- into his daily lineup in center field but also lead him off. Didn't matter that Owens would get on base far too infrequently to deserve it, Guillen wanted a speed guy there. You see, fantasy owners, Michael Bourn and Carlos Gomez are valuable commodities stealing bases to us, but I doubt either one gets to hit at the top of the order all year with sub-.300 on-base percentages. Owens is no different.
I wonder if Carlos Quentin saw this inevitability as well, because he's sure hitting as if his job were on the line. The former Diamondback was the one who stood to lose playing time, with Nick Swisher moving to left field and Quentin picking up splinters on the bench. You know, in little league we all got splinters, but I have a feeling guys making $10 mil a year aren't actually getting splinters. Anyway, Quentin's days in left field were clearly numbered, unless he started fulfilling the promise he had as a big-time OPS guy in the middle of a lineup. Mission accomplished!
Quentin hit .421 during the past week, with power and walks and speed and -- oh my -- he's suddenly No. 13 in baseball in that fancy OPS stat, which is only on-base percentage plus slugging. I know it scares some people, but all you do is add up those two numbers and you've got OPS. And Quentin's got a good one, just like we always thought he would, finally.
If there's anything I'm surprised about, it's not that Quentin is playing this well, but that Guillen gave him the chance to, as opposed to making the easy move of installing the limited Owens into the outfield. I thought Quentin would do nice things a year ago in Arizona, but persistent shoulder woes obviously squashed that. The White Sox picked him up for minor leaguer Chris Carter and figured he was worth a look. I'd say so! In the minors, he hit for power and registered high on-base percentages, buoyed in part by getting plunked with a Biggio-like amount of pitches, but hey, it all counts. Quentin seemed the prototypical 30-100 right fielder to me, much like the guy who forced him to left field this spring, Jermaine Dye. Quentin is younger and better, though.
Quentin has been one of the most added players in ESPN standard leagues during the past week, and is up to 85.1 percent owned. I snatched him up in the rather deep "La Liga De La Lista Caliente" a week ago, and intend to keep him awhile. In that league, batting average is not a stat, but OBP and slugging are, and I was pretty surprised to see Quentin available. I'm about thisclose to parting ways with Jack Cust and Gary Sheffield in that league, but since they draw walks, I can wait a bit longer. Oh, and by the way, my Philly Bully squad clocked Brian Kenny's annoyingly named Bristol BullyIII The Revenge team 8-4 this week. I guess he wants revenge for being walloped by me in the championship round last September.
So Quentin is good, on his way to a 25-90 season I figure, with at least a .900 OPS. He's currently got a .996 OPS, but it's a bit too early to start anointing him a top-10 guy in the category. It is, after all, only a month of action, and while he does bring plate discipline, I don't think he'll be able to sustain having walked more times than he's struck out. As for Owens, he's perfectly healthy, doing his stolen base thing for Triple-A Charlotte. There's little question Owens can help a fantasy team, and a real one as well, and the White Sox are going to promote him back to the big club at some point. He's a nice fourth outfielder. If he were to swipe 50 bases, it would be extremely valuable in fantasy. I no longer think that will happen. Quentin's got this job for as long as he wants.
Who are some other surprises among the top 20 OPS leaders? Glad you asked. Here we go.
Josh Willingham, OF, Marlins: I've compared Willingham to Pat Burrell before, but the fact is Willingham, while similar afoot, had never drawn walks at a high rate. Willingham was once a catcher, Burrell was drafted at third base and moved to first base then left field, but Burrell has had some really big seasons, like the current one. He's third in OPS. Willingham is eighth, with basically the same stats as Manny Ramirez, who we've seen looks reborn. Willingham is not a low-average hitter; his career mark is .275. I expect he'll end up around there, with around 30 homers and 100 RBIs, and an OPS in the .900 range. Still, that's a good year.
Nate McLouth, OF, Pirates: When I wrote the blog about players I expected to go 20/20 this season, and placed Pittsburgh's center fielder on the list, I got some strange looks. Well, stranger than normal anyway. McLouth mashed Philly pitching this weekend, hitting a pair of home runs Sunday off Brett Myers, and I don't think the power is a fluke. McLouth slugged .459 a year ago, in 329 at-bats, and a low batting average helped dissuade fantasy owners from believing. So far so good, as McLouth takes walks and has speed. Interestingly, he's been caught stealing three times already, though one came on a pickoff, and on one of the others replays showed he was safe. Whatever. In his first 700 or so at-bats, he was 34-of-36 running. I still think he is a 20/20 player, but like a Grady Sizemore type statistically, the OPS should level off in the .850 range.
Conor Jackson, 1B, Diamondbacks: One of the signature stats with him is that he doesn't swing and miss. In 81 at-bats, he has fanned only six times, and as the cleanup hitter for the best team in baseball, he should get the chance to knock in 100 runs pretty easily. I'm not convinced Jackson has 20-home run power just yet; he has three home runs so far, all in a four-day span in mid-April. He's more of a gap hitter. Also, while the right-handed hitter is doing a capable job against right-handed pitching, that 1.300 OPS against southpaws stands out a bit. Derrek Lee had seasons like this as well, and as long as the final numbers are there, you don't care what hand the pitchers who get him out throw with. Jackson's slugging percentage is going to drop, but he's fantasy worthy as he threatens to hit .300 this season and knock in 110 runs.
Casey Kotchman, 1B, Angels: Like Jackson, Kotchman just doesn't strike out, but isn't it odd that he's hitting for power this quickly? The supposed Mark Grace clone -- not that there's anything wrong with that -- hit 11 home runs in more than 500 plate appearances a year ago, and there was talk this spring that he could lose playing time to Kendry Morales or one of the extra outfielders on the squad. Kotchman is already more than halfway to his 2007 home run total, and it doesn't seem to matter if you throw a lefty at this sweet, lefty swing, either. He's 7-for-15 against them, with three extra-base hits and a few walks. I'm not counting on more than 20 home runs, or a high walk total, so the 1.000 OPS will drop 100 points, but this is an emerging power option.
Geovany Soto, C, Cubs: If you think I got called out on McLouth going 20/20, you should see the feedback I'm still getting on the blog in which I said Soto would have a better overall fantasy season than Joe Mauer. Of course, the fella I ranked between those two is Jorge Posada, and I'm hearing rumors his balky shoulder could be more significant than just a 15-day disabled list stint, which means another top catcher is gone. Soto is here to stay. Only three of the 13 batting title-qualified catchers have an OPS higher than .900, and Soto leads the way by a wide margin at .959, with Brian McCann (.915) and A.J. Pierzynski (.906) lurking. Soto is playing a lot. Backup catcher Henry Blanco has 17 at-bats. Only Russell Martin has more walks, and only Martin, McCann, Ivan Rodriguez and Kurt Suzuki have more plate appearances. Soto is second to Bengie Molina in catcher RBIs, and with his plate discipline, I think that 20-80 season we ordered remains possible. Posada and Victor Martinez were the only backstops to top an .850 OPS a year ago, so don't expect Soto to keep this up, because he's not one of those guys yet, but everything else here is legit.
Fred Lewis, OF, Giants: Who needs Barry Bonds in San Francisco? Lewis is hitting .333 with a .958 OPS, and my favorite stat is the one in which he has scored 16 runs for this offensively challenged bunch, and second most on the team has nine! And it's Jose Castillo, who joined the team five weeks ago. Lewis has spent most of his time leading off, where he has a 1.102 OPS. He's not a power guy, nor will he be walking more than 100 times. I suppose he could hit 12 or so home runs, maybe steal 20 bases, and a .275/.350/.450 line would be a good season. He's not an obvious sell-high guy, but that OPS, it's going to be dropping soon.
Sometimes we do have to give the managers some credit. The Dodgers' Joe Torre hasn't been popular with fantasy owners for the way he's handled his outfield, and surely Dusty Baker in Cincinnati didn't make new pals when he jettisoned hot prospect Jay Bruce to the lovely town of Louisville.