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Still believing in Kemp, Berkman, Jeter

1/28/2011

Anyone remember 2009? How about 2008? Yeah, I know it was a really long time ago, but it seems to me having a long memory can be invaluable when attempting to be a smart, well-informed fantasy player, or fantasy analyst. So it was that I found myself in a room with my ESPN fantasy editorial brethren, trying in vain to point out the virtues of what Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp accomplished before 2010. I wasn't literally on my own lonely island fighting for Kemp, but it didn't feel good.

Kemp was a statistical -- read, fantasy -- disappointment in the most recent season, as his batting average dropped to a miserable .249. Hey, it could have been worse. He could have been Carlos Pena or Mark Reynolds. We didn't expect Kemp to drop 48 points off a batting average that wasn't supposed to be a problem in the first place. Kemp also ran less; well, that's not entirely true, he was just successful on a lot fewer stolen base attempts. Add it all up and yes, Kemp, despite a career high in home runs and enough speed to matter, didn't deliver the fantasy goods like the No. 2 outfielder he was supposed to be. Thanks to batting average, he finished as the No. 30 outfielder. It's quite a drop. But it doesn't mean he hits .249 in 2011. That was my point!

The eternal optimist in me spent quite a bit of time arguing the merits of hitters like Kemp, Justin Upton, Aaron Hill, Jorge Posada and Lance Berkman, not a wholly forgotten crew of former stars, but certainly a bunch hardly trending up. Ultimately, much was accomplished over two days at the ESPN campus debating players and doing a mock draft, and the fruits of these so-called labors -- it actually is fun -- will be your gain when our full rankings and Draft Kit are released next month. I don't think my campaigning for Kemp as a top-10 outfielder -- I've got him in Round 2 overall -- mattered much in the big picture, but he ended up ranked pretty much where I lobbied for him.

I suppose my role, in part, becomes reminding people that the most important year in analyzing players isn't always the most recent season. Trends can be a funny thing, as they aren't always so easy to read. It's certainly possible Kemp hits .249 again. Then again, I think he might hit .297, as he did in 2009. When in doubt, I tend to side with toolsy outfielders who hit for power and steal enough bases to matter. Kemp seems like one of the better bounce-back players in the game. I like quite a few of his Dodgers teammates -- Andre Ethier, Jonathan Broxton, among others -- to return similar value to pre-2010 levels as well. But Kemp has special upside.

Here are some other players I fought for in those meetings that I seem to like more than others:

Catcher: Posada hit .248 but had 18 home runs in 383 at-bats. It's presumed he won't be catching anymore, focusing on swinging a bat as the New York Yankees' designated hitter. At 37, Posada hit .285 with 22 home runs. I think he can do that at 39. That's a top-10 catcher to me.

First base: Berkman has played right field before, so I don't buy the notion a position change in St. Louis will hurt him. I'd argue the Cardinals are wise enough to rest him against tough lefty pitchers -- clearly his weak side -- and a return to the 25 home runs and 80 RBIs he delivered in 2009 is more than possible. I ranked Berkman a top-20 first baseman. People really looked at me funny when I argued for Lance.

Second base: I'm sure someone in ESPN Fantasy -- perhaps myself -- will deal with Toronto's Hill more in depth, but put simply, a .196 batting average on balls in play is probably the lowest I've ever seen. Hill can hit .270 with big power. He's a top-10 second baseman.

Shortstop: To me, Derek Jeter is the top player at this position not on a 1993 expansion team (Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies). I'll still take him over Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins and definitely ahead of Elvis Andrus. As bad as Jeter was in 2010, I refuse to believe the skills that led to 18 home runs, 30 stolen bases and a .334 batting average in 2009 are toast. I also expect the opposite of a loss of contract-induced motivation.

Third base: I've made my Adrian Beltre argument previously, and I didn't expect much support in him staying with or topping Ryan Zimmerman/Alex Rodriguez. At least he beat out Jose Bautista. I found myself fighting for Pablo Sandoval, though. Sure, he and a thousand other players lost weight this winter and are in pristine shape, but this is a guy that hit .330 with pop in 2009. Don't bury him too much.

Outfield: Other than Kemp and the younger (and better) Upton, I said nice things about Drew Stubbs, Mike Stanton, Bobby Abreu, Jason Bay, Nick Swisher, Ryan Raburn and Manny Ramirez. Look up Stubbs, you might be surprised. He wasn't winning batting titles in the minor leagues, and won't for the Reds, but weren't we saying that about that other 30/30 threat in an Ohio outfield? Yeah, I kind of like Grady Sizemore more than most as well, but Stubbs could be awesome.