In concept, the Ultimate Fantasy Draft is pretty simple: If you were starting a team from scratch, which players would you build around? Here's Nos. 11-20. (Last year's rankings in parenthesis.)
No. 20. David Ortiz, DH, Red Sox, Age 31 (22)
I don't believe in clutch hitting, but I do believe in David Ortiz.
No. 19. Daisuke Matsuzaka, P, Red Sox, Age 26 (50)
I think we've learned two things so far: One, Matsuzaka is human -- he can get rattled on the mound, just like any other pitcher. Two, he has an approach completely unlike anything that most American hitters have ever seen, able to throw nearly any pitch in nearly any place on nearly any count. I suspect that a lot of pitchers would benefit from applying Matsuzaka's approach, but until the rest of the league has the chance to study him, he's going to have a substantial competitive advantage.
No. 18. Vladimir Guerrero, RF, Angels, Age 31 (10)
Andruw Jones and Vladimir Guerrero came up at just about the same time, and there was a lot of debate back then about just who was going to have the better career. Ten years later, you can have pretty much the same argument. Our Wins Above Replacement Level (WARP) statistic shows Jones with a slight edge entering this season, with 82.6 wins created to Vlad's 74.5, almost all of which has been the result of his superior glove; Guerrero has clearly had the better bat. But I suspect that Vlad will make up that ground before it's all said and done. Although Andruw has made some adjustments to extend to his peak, Guerrero hasn't had to make adjustments because he's still pretty much the same player that he was as a 21-year-old rookie. The bat speed is still there, the plate coverage is still there. Guerrero still runs pretty well. Vlad is a freak of nature, and by the end of his six-year cycle, there's a good chance he'll be chasing 500 HR and 3,000 hits.
No. 17. C.C. Sabathia, P, Indians, Age 26 (NR)
Of course, if you really want to talk about freaks of nature, the discussion probably has to begin with Sabathia. I suspect that most people take one look at a 6'7", 250-pound dude with his cap titled to the side and think a lot of things before they think "major league pitcher." Early in his career, indeed, Sabathia wasn't much of a pitcher; he was a thrower who was getting by on his raw stuff. But you talk about trends -- not only has Sabathia's strikeout rate improved in each of the last three seasons running, but his walk rate has also declined. He's the most intimidating specimen on the mound since Don Drysdale, and his peak may be just as good.
No. 16. Brandon Webb, P, Diamondbacks, Age 27 (41)
Webb's Cy Young last year represented something of a tipping point: the baseball world will no longer ignore the importance of groundball-to-flyball ratio. Webb's GB-FB ratio is 3.91 over the course of his career and was 4.06 last year. Both numbers are literally off the charts; the next-best ratio among starters last year belonged to Chien-Ming Wang at 3.06. PECOTA estimates that Webb's ERA is about 70 points lower than it would be if he had merely average groundball numbers; that makes all the difference between a solid No. 3 and a staff ace.
No. 15. Felix Hernandez, P, Mariners, Age 21 (8)
PECOTA turned out a very interesting forecast for Hernandez. Although it expects his ERA to be much better than a year ago, it is also fairly certain that he will get hurt, assigning him a 28 percent chance of a serious injury. Indeed, you'll find people such as our resident injury guru Will Carroll who insist that injuries are nearly inevitable until Hernandez corrects his messy mechanics. The good news is that PECOTA sees his innings pitched rising considerably within 2-3 years, indicating that it expects him to overcome those injury problems. I'm sure that Mariners fans want to see their stud get back out on the mound, but this may be the perfect opportunity for the M's to take things slowly and fix Felix's delivery.
No. 14. Ryan Howard, 1B, Phillies, Age 27 (32)
Howard should be thought of more along the lines of David Ortiz than some sort of up-and-comer. He didn't become a big league regular until age 25, and with that big body the injury risk is greater than you might think; his No. 1 PECOTA comparable is Mo Vaughn. With that said, if calling someone the next David Ortiz is damning him with faint praise, you've got a pretty good ballplayer on your hands.
No. 13. Jake Peavy, P, Padres, Age 26 (29)
People are looking at Peavy's big numbers this season and talking about him like he's some new kid on the block, but he's been here before. He led the National League with a 2.27 ERA in 2004 and won the league's strikeout crown a year later. Even last year, when his ERA was disappointing, he topped NL starters in strikeouts per inning pitched. This is simply the perception catching up with the reality.
No. 12. Carlos Beltran, CF, Mets, Age 30 (30)
One of PECOTA's key findings is that players with a lot of different skills tend to age better than those whose value is concentrated in just one or two areas. And Carlos Beltran has a lot of skills. Power. Speed. Batting eye. Gold Glove Defense. This year he's even hitting for average. Mets GM Omar Minaya took a lot of criticism when he signed Beltran to a seven-year, $119 million deal two seasons ago, but how many teams would kill for the privilege of getting Beltran production for Alfonso Soriano money?
No. 11. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Nationals, Age 22 (37)
All right, so the numbers this year aren't great. Let's remember that Zimmerman is just 22, an age at which Mike Schmidt was still toiling in the minor leagues. Zimmerman isn't going to be Schmidt -- Scott Rolen and Brooks Robinson are better comparables -- but he's going to be very good for a long time. The last third baseman to have more than 100 RBIs in his age-21 season was Eddie Matthews in 1953. Zimmerman isn't panicking at the plate; in fact he has cut down on his strikeouts from a year ago. And his glovework is always fantastic. The hits are going to come.
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