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Charging the Mound: Next Year's Cheat Sheet

Chris Liss

Chris Liss is RotoWire's Managing Editor and Host of RotoWIre Fantasy Sports Today on Sirius XM radio.

Jeff Erickson

Jeff Erickson is a co-founder of RotoWire and the only two-time winner of Baseball Writer of the Year from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. He's also in the FSWA Hall of Fame. He roots for the Reds, Bengals, Red Wings, Pacers and Northwestern University (the real NU).

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Tuesday, August 10, 2010 8:50pm
To: "Christopher Liss"
Subject: Charging - Next Year's Cheat Sheet

This is about the time of the year when we start taking our first look at what next year's cheatsheet will look like. While we still have a third of the season remaining, and plenty of things can happen that can change our rankings, I think we also have enough data to get started on this project. So what I think we'll do is go with a rough cut of my top 30, with a few comments spliced in here-and-there, and then get your feedback. Chances are there will be a major injury or two or I'll change my mind between here and the end of the season, but I think it's always a good exercise to be thinking of "next year's cheatsheet."

Without further ado, here is the first draft.

1. Albert Pujols - He might not end up being the absolutely most valuable fantasy player this year, but he's easily the most reliable player in the game. I don't see a case for making anyone else the first pick.
2. Hanley Ramirez - I didn't get a chance to own Ramirez anywhere this year, so when I started this exercise, I hadn't realized how much his batting average had dropped along with his power. I think that the average should recover, but is this decline in power for real? How much?
3. Evan Longoria - Speaking of declines in power, these last two months have been pretty gnarly for Longoria. But he's made up for most of that with his stolen bases.
4. Carlos Gonzalez - Currently the highest ranked hitter in the Yahoo game. While there's some inclination to downgrade outfielders at the top, not too many of the absolute elite hitters in the game are outfielders. There's some danger of playing the hot hand here, but so long as he's at Coors, his ranking isn't going to be that far off if it's off at all.
5. Miguel Cabrera
6. Robinson Cano
7. Mark Teixeira
8. Joey Votto - I think that Votto has to be a considered a peer of the second-tier elite first basemen, and not a step below it. Do I have my Reds-tinted shades on here?
9. Roy Halladay - Like Pujols among the hitters, Halladay isn't always going to end up the top starting pitcher, but you have to give some sort of premium for consistency.
10. Ryan Braun - You advanced the theory that maybe Braun has been playing hurt longer than the Brewers are willing to admit, and given his big drop in power the last two months, that makes some sense to me. A wrist injury certainly would hurt his power. Anyhow, I think he's a good bounceback candidate.
11. Carl Crawford
12. Troy Tulowitzki - Is there a notion out there that Tulo is injury-prone, or are all his injuries freak injuries? Nonetheless, given the dearth of productive shortstops out there, I don't think this is too high.
13. Justin Upton
14. David Wright
15. Chase Utley - Too low? I don't think so - even before his thumb injury, Utley's numbers were down.
16. Prince Fielder
17. Adam Wainwright
18. Alex Rodriguez
19. Matt Kemp - Joe Torre will be gone next year, and all will be back to normal for Kemp.
20. Ryan Howard
21. Joe Mauer
22. Tim Lincecum
23. Dustin Pedroia
24. Kevin Youkilis
25. Josh Johnson
26. Josh Hamilton
27. Cliff Lee
28. Jason Heyward
29. Adrian Gonzalez
30. Alex Rios

The biggest omissions for me, at least in terms of what they've done this year, are Jose Bautista and Vladimir Guerrero. Bautista's low batting average still is a big drawback, and of course he gets dinged a little for not doing anything close to this before this year. Guerrero probably won't qualify at OF next year (13 games right now) and he's really tailed off as of late. You could also make cases for Ryan Zimmerman, Buster Posey or Adrian Beltre among hitters, and Ubaldo Jimenez among the pitchers. What say you? Who is missing? Who doesn't deserve to be there that is on the list right now? Where am I way off?

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Tuesday, August 10, 2010 9:56pm
Subject: Re: Charging - Next Year's Cheat Sheet

I think this list is pretty good. Just to nitpick: Why Teixeira over Votto? Votto runs a bit, also plays in a great hitters park and hits for more average. He's also younger. I could see Miguel Cabrera at No. 2 behind Pujols for reliability, though Ramirez as a SS who runs has more upside obviously. Longoria's been pretty pedestrian since early in the year. Is he nursing an injury we don't know about, or is he just Ryan Zimmerman plus 20 steals? No. 3 strikes me as high for him especially with David Wright at No. 14 and ARod at 18. I'd also move Cano down - he's having a great year, but doesn't run and this could very well be his power peak. Top-20, sure, but No. 6 strikes me as high. I think Dustin Pedroia is nearly as good, and he's at 23. I'd have Crawford and Upton above Braun who strikes me as risky. Maybe he's been hurt all year, but didn't he have some nagging back issues, too? I'm with you on Cargo - still in a growth phase, still in Coors. He could go 35-35-.300, and that's a case for No. 1 overall.

Halladay is about right at No. 9 - he's second in the majors in strikeouts and as reliable as a hitter. But unlike Pedro in his prime or Randy Johnson, he's not a category killer in Ks - he won't approach 300-plus - so that's probably about as high as you can go. I think Utley's about right, too or even a little high. He'll be 32, and probably won't run as much as he used to. I'd take Pedroia over him straight up, I think.

Jason Heyward is pretty aggressive, but I like it - we're looking at 2011, which means our answer sheet is a lot like the 2012 cheat sheet. Expect him to take the leap.

Some other notes: No Stephen Strasburg? I would roll the dice on him ahead of Alex Rios. There's 250-plus Ks, so long as he stays healthy. I realize it's a big gamble, but I'd make it. Jon Lester and Felix Hernandez deserve consideration, too. Also C.C. Sabathia who's pitching in a tough environment, but he's a ace for wins and as reliable as they come. The more I think about it, I'd jettison Rios who's slowed down, and who I'm wary of given his previous track record.

I also think Rickie Weeks and Justin Morneau deserve consideration as does Matt Holliday and even David Price. Is Delmon Young at his peak at age 24, or can he still get a lot better? Probably a reach in the top 30, but again, thinking about the 2012 cheat sheet, maybe he finishes there. Staying on the Twins theme, check out Francisco Liriano's peripherals - 156:44 K:BB in 140.2 IP, 2.2:1 GB:FB - off the charts in the AL. He's an injury risk, granted, but no one's pitched much better this year.

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Wednesday, August 11, 2010 6:11pm
To: "Christopher Liss"
Subject: Re: Charging - Next Year's Cheat Sheet

It's funny, right after I fired this off to you last night and drove to my daughter's soccer league coaches meeting (I'm getting firmly entangled in suburbia), I thought about Strasburg and that would be the first omission you would point to. My reticence on including him in the top 30 stems from a possible innings limit next year - I don't think that they'll fully take the shackles off of him. Plus, maybe I'm a little gunshy after hearing about his shoulder tightness earlier. If I'm going to take a shot at a starting pitcher with one of my first three picks, I want it to be as close to a sure thing as possible. He hasn't graduated to that level just yet. I'll say this, though - he's the type of guy whose value could change after I see him for another 5-to-6 weeks, if we get to see him that much longer.

If I'm going to drop Rios for another starting pitcher, and I probably will, upon further reflection, it's almost certainly going to be for King Felix, Lester or Sabathia, probably in that order. What King Felix loses in run support he gains back in ballpark and defense, I think. It's amazing that the guy is still just 24 years old - not that relative age matters much in a redraft league. He's run bad in terms of run support luck this year, but he could catch the good end of variance next year and not even lose ground to Lester or Sabathia in that department.

I omitted to mention Matt Holliday among my notable omissions last time, and in fact, he might have been my last cut. I think that's why he punished the Reds so badly in this three-game sweep this week, just to spite me. I think that the comparison between him and Rios comes down to what you value more - Rios' more certain speed against Holliday's more certain ability to hit for average. Rios has stayed close in terms of average this year, but there's a lot more variance with him. Holliday is running less than ever, though, and I'm not sure if that returns next year.

I also thought about both Weeks and Morneau, and in both cases, perhaps unfairly, I downgraded them for health reasons. Weeks has finally avoided injury this year and has finally blossomed into the type of hitter many thought he could be, though at the cost of running less frequently. I wonder if that is a Ken Macha-driven fluke, or if this is the new Weeks? But I still might have a hard time committing to him in the 3rd round next year. With Morneau, if I knew that the concussion issues were past him, yeah, he'd make the top 30, probably ahead of Adrian Gonzalez. But this is where I get really gunshy - with head injuries.

Maybe you're right about the other two Twins, Young and Liriano. We had our scout, Bernie Pleskoff, on today's radio show, and he seems to think that there's another level for him. If so, what does that level look like? Would it mean that he could hit 25-30 homers? One interesting stat about Young - despite raising his batting average by .36 from last year to this year, his BABIP is actually .11 lower, dropping from .344 to .333. In other words, his high average is actually pretty legit.

Finally, addressing the nitpicks:

Teixeira-Votto: The lean towards Teixeira was in part due to the fact that he'll have a better lineup around him, and the other part was a bit of precaution that I didn't have my homer goggles on.

Longoria's power: What's more likely to be his real level? His 27 and 33-homer seasons, or the pace of the last two months? It's a lot like David Wright getting most of his value back this year. I think that the power will come back for Longo, and if anything, I've undervalued Wright rather than overvalued Longoria.

Robinson Cano: I'll concede your argument there. My first inclination is put him higher because of the position, but you're right in that he doesn't run and isn't likely to do so in the future.

Ryan Braun: He's only risky from a health perspective, in my opinion. It's not as if he's suddenly lost the skill to hit for power for no reason. He's not old, and as far as I can tell, he hasn't changed his swing. Maybe there's a persistent back issue that the Brewers aren't reporting, but I'm going to presume that he'll be healthy next year absent specific news suggesting that I shouldn't. I think it's fair to hold him to a different standard than Morneau, who has had multiple concussion problems now.

Let me throw two more hitters and one more pitcher at you for your vetting:

Jose Reyes - Health concerns are a legitimate issue, but if he enters spring training with a clean bill of health, where do you rank him?

Nelson Cruz - He has 15 homers, 15 stolen bases and seems like a good bet to produce at a similar level next year.

Chris Carpenter - Is he safely out of the injury nexus, at least as far as him arm is concerned?

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Wednesday, August 11, 2010 6:31pm
Subject: Re: Charging - Next Year's Cheat Sheet

I'd have to put Lester, Sabathia and the King ahead of Strasburg right now, but if Strasburg finishes strong, I might rethink that - he's the only one with 300-K upside. Do you realize Rios has been caught stealing 13 times? I don't know that he's a shoo-in for more than 20 bags, and Holliday runs a little. I'd much rather have Holliday. As for Votto that's what I figured - overcompensation for homerism. I think I'd take him ahead of Teixeira with the only concern being reliability, though any time Votto's been healthy, he's raked. But maybe I'm overcompensating for my homerism. (Not likely as I routinely draft Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera in every league most years).

I don't think I'm holding Braun to a different standard than Morneau - you have Braun in the top-10, and Morneau's not even on your list. The only difference as far as I can tell is Braun's steals which have value, but he doesn't strike me as a player who will run a ton going forward - maybe 15 bags on average - certainly has value, but is it the difference is between No. 10 and not on the list at all?

Maybe Longoria will be fine next year, but he's slugging just .485 despite walking more and hitting for a slightly higher average this year. And keep in mind, he's never slugged higher than .531, albeit at age 22 in the majors. How is that so different from Zimmerman who's slugged .525 and .540 the last two years in the NL?

I'm not high on Reyes - sure there's upside in theory, but stolen bases are a young man's game - remember that Luis Castillo stole 62 one year, too. I'd take him in the fourth or fifth round, but probably wouldn't gamble on him any earlier than that. Same with Jimmy Rollins. Nelson Cruz has a .356 BABIP after .286 last year, and I wonder how long we can count on the steals. I'd probably pass on him in the first three rounds. The leg injuries he had this year don't help, either. Carpenter's right there after the tier of guys we mentioned. A small discount for his health and also for his lack of dominance.