Can you feel it? It's almost here; real, authentic 100% USDA Prime Grade baseball. Soon teams will leave their prospective spring training homes way down south and come back to their cities and fans to start a 2011 season full of hope and promise. The sun shines brighter, the beer tastes better, and in this one moment we can believe that maybe, just maybe, the Chicago Cubs could win it all. For a moment, at least.
For fantasy owners, this means that lineup you took so much care in drafting will finally start racking up real stats in real games with real batting orders to give you real bragging rights over your friends and family. Yes fellow baseball enthusiasts, it's that time of year again. Are you ready?
- Due to a fantastic and motivated spring campaign, the Arizona Diamondbacks have decided to keep power-hitting first baseman Russell Branyan on their Opening Day roster. "The Muscle" has been ripping the cover off the ball, batting .452 with four home runs and 16 RBIs over 18 games this spring. That kind of performance essentially forced the D-Backs to get him on the roster and has earned him some time at first base along with former New York Yankee Juan Miranda. Considering Branyan has seemed unwilling to accept anything less than a starting or platoon gig, the team clearly offered him something more than just a bench role. His profile of a low-average power-hitter suits him nicely as the team's number five hitter when he's in the lineup, slotted nicely after Justin Upton and Stephen Drew and protected by promising catcher Miguel Montero at number six. His batting position and strong spring makes him a tempting option, but it would be wise to take a wait-and-see approach here.
- With Andrew McCutchen slated to take over the number three spot in the order he deserves, speedy left fielder Jose Tabata will bat leadoff for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The 22-year old is an interesting sleeper pick after batting .299 with 19 stolen bases in 405 at bats last season. His age and lack of a solid track record makes him a bit risky, as with guys like this there's always the chance they regress a bit as they continue to figure out major league pitching (see Andrus, Elvis). We could be seeing a bit of that in his poor spring campaign (.214 batting average, one extra base hit), but considering his solid minor league numbers he should be able to get it together and become a useful source of stolen bases, runs, and batting average in mixed leagues.
- Royals manager Ned Yost revealed last week that shortstop Alcides Escobar and second baseman Chris Getz would split time at the number two spot in the batting order this season, with Getz getting the nod against right-handed pitchers and Escobar going against lefties. Whoever isn't batting second will bat ninth in the order. It's a little odd considering Getz has a career batting average nearly 30 points higher against lefties than righties; last season the difference was even more obvious, as his split was .304/.219. Yost himself acknowledged that this situation could be fluid, and considering the relative lack of upside coming from the Kansas City lineup this situation isn't worth monitoring all that intently unless you're in a deep AL-only league.
- Shocking news out of Cleveland: Grady Sizemore won't be ready for Opening Day. Manager Manny Acta announced that Michael Brantley will replace him in center field and likely bat leadoff for the Cleveland Indians in the meantime. He was penciled in as the team's starting left fielder anyway but now will have an opportunity for a lot of at-bats at the top of the lineup. He provides little if any power but has the speed to be a useful source of stolen bases for fantasy owners willing to take a gamble. Once Sizemore returns, he will likely bat ninth.
- Manager Joe Maddon's lineups rarely stay very consistent, but it looks like right fielder Matt Joyce will be getting a fair amount of at-bats from the five-hole for the Tampa Bay Rays. He may be limited to 3-to-4 starts per week as the team works Sean Rodriguez into the lineup, but he still holds value due to the home run pop he can provide, knocking one over the fence every 21.6 at-bats last season. It would be wise to remain cautious early as Joyce has had a rather poor spring (.212 average, 16:4 strikeout-to-walk ratio) but this is a situation worth monitoring.
- One of the prospects that could contribute most the fantasy owners this season, center fielder Peter Bourjos will start the season batting ninth for the Angels and could get at-bats at the top of the lineup in games where Maicer Izturis is out. The 10th round pick in the 2005 Amateur Draft, Bourjos has made big improvements in his plate discipline this spring after struggling in a late audition in 2010. It has resulted in a .354 batting average and the confidence of his manager, Mike Scioscia. As the "second leadoff man" he could steal 30 bases and rack up enough runs to be useful even in mixed leagues, especially if the plate discipline he has found this spring can carry over to the regular season.