- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Rookies tend to break hearts in fantasy sports, and it's no different in baseball. You can check out who the top prospects are, and learn all about Jay Bruce, Evan Longoria and Clay Buchholz. I have opinions on which of these broader set of kiddies is going to make it in 2008 and which aren't, and it's going to lean toward the "aren't" part. How long did it take B.J. Upton to make it? You think his younger brother is such a lock for immediate stardom? What is Andy Marte up to these days? How much have Ian Stewart and Felix Pie helped your fantasy teams?
Look, I'm sure you're doing your homework for this season, learning all you can about the newest crop of young players sure to make a big impact. Now do me a favor: Check out the group from 2007, because most top prospects eventually do make it, but not in the first year. Hmmm, what about the second year?
In recent drafts, I took the sophomore route on a few picks, and in each case my thinking went, how could everyone have just forgotten about these guys? Once a top prospect, always a top prospect, and while I certainly lean toward hitters rather than pitchers eventually fulfilling their lofty expectations, I'd consider Andrew Miller, for example, in the right spot. The point is, a lot of people thought a lot of good things about the 2007 rookies heading into the season, and just because some of them failed, to a degree, doesn't mean they will always fail.
Let's discuss hitters who made their debuts in 2007, those who gave fantasy owners stats but generally appeared to have failed. Think Troy Tulowitzki from 2006. The Rockies shortstop didn't get much time in the bigs, but in his 96 at-bats late that season, he batted .240 without power. Had he simply not received a promotion to the majors and hit like that, he would have been in more demand for 2007. Same with Matt Garza, who didn't thrive when he got called up that same season. Of course, Tulowitzki was terrific in 2007, while Garza wasn't. Hitters are safer.
One more memory: Back in 1995, there were a pair of young shortstops projected to hit for power, and both were named Alex. Back then, there was Cal Ripken and not too many other shortstops who hit for power, so fantasy owners went ga-ga for them. One of them was on Toronto, and in 1995, he hit .243 with 10 home runs and 42 RBIs. The other was on Seattle, and in 1995, he hit .232 with 5 home runs and 19 RBIs in fewer games, as well as 6 walks and 42 strikeouts. Look, it seems crazy now that Alex Gonzalez -- the one who is currently retired, not the one who just broke his leg for Cincinnati -- was thought of in the same light, at the least, as Alex Rodriguez, but it's true. If you, the fantasy owner, had simply dismissed A-Rod from his 1995 season in a keeper league, you missed 500 home runs.
Now I'm not predicting this first guy on the list to be like A-Rod, but let's just say he's the impetus for this blog, and I think the Royals, and fantasy owners who believe, have a cornerstone player for years to come.
Alex Gordon, 1B/3B, Royals: What, you thought I meant Ryan Shealy? OK, Gordon didn't look like the next George Brett last season. Looking inside the numbers, it's hard to find a lot of hidden goodness. He did get better as the season went on, but even as he slugged .472 in the second half, he didn't get on base, as his walk rate dropped. He didn't do much against left-handed pitching, though he did have a better slugging percentage than against right-handers. He batted an impressive .310 with power when leading off innings, but he's not a leadoff hitter, so it's irrelevant. He hit better when playing first base than third, but that's also not a factor, since his position is clearly third base. I'm just calling his "failed" rookie season nerves. The kid can play. He was the second overall pick in the 2005 draft and a can't-miss prospect. He won't miss. We project him to go 22-70-16, and I'm taking the over on the power, especially the RBI total. Get this guy now in keeper leagues, and be thankful his 2007 was so disappointing it drove down his price and made him affordable for one more season.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C/1B, Rangers: Some wouldn't call his rookie season a failure, really, but if you recall how much people were jumping on board when the Braves sent him to Texas in the Mark Teixeira deal, Salty didn't emerge after that point. His season numbers were better in Atlanta. In fact, other than that 30-3 win against Baltimore in which Saltalamacchia hit a pair of home runs and knocked in seven, his Rangers stats were largely unimpressive. Look at those 75 strikeouts against 19 walks. The rumor now is he might not make the team if Gerald Laird beats him out for the starting catching job. This is a good thing in fantasy. Saltalamacchia is 22 and has plenty of time to emerge, and when it comes to catchers, it wouldn't be a bad thing for fantasy if he spends two months in the minors and then swats 12 home runs in the final four months. I think people are more down on Gordon than Saltalamacchia, but they should see the upside in both.
Elijah Dukes, OF, Nationals: This guy has been in the news for the wrong reasons over the past year, no doubt, but the Nationals wanted him and might be close to giving him regular at-bats. That should interest you, the fantasy owner. Dukes hit .190 with the Rays, and there's little way to spin that positively. But he also smacked 10 home runs in 52 games, and took 33 walks against 44 strikeouts. Dukes has hit and run at every level, and while we can question his discipline off the field, he actually has a good deal of it when it comes to seeing pitches and knowing which to swing at. That's a good sign. I'm not of the mind Lastings Milledge is the next Vladimir Guerrero, by the way, and Dukes can be had for a bargain price in most leagues when compared to him. For now it appears Dukes' best shot to play would be if Austin Kearns got dealt, but really, do you expect Wily Mo Pena to get 500 at-bats? I don't. And what has Milledge proved? If Dukes can stay on the team, I think he's going to break out with a solid blend of power and speed.
Andy LaRoche, 3B, Dodgers: If he had hit better than .226 in his 35 games with the Dodgers, there wouldn't be talk of sharing the job with Nomar Garciaparra, or trade rumors involving Brandon Inge and any other third baseman you can find. LaRoche is 24 and clearly can take a walk, which is always a great sign with a young hitter. The power will come. If you want a comparison, even though LaRoche bats right-handed, look at his brother Adam, Pittsburgh's first baseman. In two years, I think the Dodgers third baseman will be better, routinely hitting .275 with 20 home runs.
Brandon Wood, 3B, Angels: How the mighty have fallen. A year ago he was like Gordon, a can't-miss power hitter, but at shortstop. He's still going to get there, you know. With some players you just have to be more patient. I think Wood's problem is opportunity, but look at what the Angels have planned for shortstop: Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis. Wood failed with the Angels because of the way he was treated, constantly on the shuttle between Los Angeles and Triple-A Salt Lake City. Don't even look at his .152 batting average, it doesn't mean a thing. Look at what Mike Schmidt did in 1972. He turned out OK. I think Wood projects soon as a Troy Glaus power type with a better batting average, and hopefully better health. I think he'll play enough shortstop early to qualify there as well. Watch him make the Angels and win the Rookie of the Year award. It's not farfetched. I mean, anyone can predict the top prospects to win awards, but that doesn't happen all that much. It's the people you don't expect, like the players who got a cup of coffee in the bigs, and enter their first full season.
Where is Justin Upton? Well, the five players I just wrote about are those I think will have a positive impact on fantasy in 2008. I think Upton is going to struggle. Nothing personal, but I just don't think he's ready. The Diamondbacks haven't really prepared for a contingency plan in right field, unless they think Jeff Salazar, Chris Burke and Trot Nixon are suitable full-timers, which they could be, I suppose. Upton is 20, and even though I selected him in an NL-only draft last week and think he can steal some bases, I'm expecting him to have issues at the plate. Plus, I hate that team I drafted. In three years, though, this Upton is going to be better than his brother B.J. How long did it take him, by the way?
There are two other players, both center fielders, who I didn't put on this list. One is Felix Pie in Chicago, and I just don't think he's ready either. The Cubs could easily end up going with a safer veteran in center field, like acquiring throw-in Jay Payton in the Brian Roberts deal. Sam Fuld isn't really a great prospect anymore, not at age 26, but he walks as much as he strikes out. As some at ESPN and in the fantasy baseball industry are aware, I've kind of adopted this guy as someone to root for after I spoke with him at the Arizona Fall League. He reminds me of Lenny Dykstra, a scrappy battler who bats left-handed, dives for fly balls, steals bases, you know the type. I think Pie is in trouble.
The other center fielder is Cameron Maybin in Florida. Acquired from the Tigers in the Miguel Cabrera extravaganza, I think Maybin is really flying under the radar. The Marlins aren't going anywhere, and they might demote him before Opening Day, so I don't think 2008 is Maybin's breakout in fantasy, but like Upton, it's coming.
Rookies tend to break hearts in fantasy sports, and it's no different in baseball. You can check out who the top prospects are, and learn all about Jay Bruce, Evan Longoria and Clay Buchholz.