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. 31-40. (Last year's rankings in parenthesis.)
No. 40. Justin Morneau, 1B, Twins, Age 26 (NR)
He won an MVP award last season at age 25 but his 52.0 Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) was just 13th in the American League, behind lesser heralded players such as Carlos Guillen and Jermaine Dye. That goes to underscore just how deep the first base position is these days. Morneau may have seasons in which he approaches last year's numbers, but he's unlikely to exceed them. His ranking goes up a bit if you're drafting for certainty rather than upside.
No. 39. Jered Weaver, P, Angels, Age 24 (NR)
It's hard to know what to make of him. Underrated heading into last season -- Baseball America had him as just its No. 57 prospect and PECOTA did not like him at all -- Weaver generated a ton of hype by winning his first seven major league starts. But he seemed forgotten as the Angels fell out of contention, and pitchers such as Cole Hamels, Francisco Liriano and Justin Verlander stole the show. It wasn't for lack of performance: Weaver's 46.5 VORP last season crushed Hamels' 23.1 and was a dead ringer for Verlander's 47.5, even though he made considerably fewer starts than either pitcher. What I've heard about the long-term health of Weaver's arm makes me nervous, as does his tendency to give up fly balls, but he belongs here until he proves otherwise.
No. 38. Vernon Wells, CF, Blue Jays, Age 28 (NR)
Picking back up on our center field theme, if Chris Young is Andruw Future, then Wells might be Andruw Present. Wells borrows a lot from Jones' technique in the field -- neither player has as much raw speed as you'd think -- and shares his well-roundedness at the plate. I'm not sure that he's going to earn the $126 million the Jays will pay him, but few players are safer bets to remain productive for the foreseeable future.
No. 37. Victor Martinez, C, Indians, Age 28 (34)
I got a lot of hate mail from Indians fans last year when I ranked Joe Mauer ahead of Martinez. That's looking like an awfully good call so far, but I meant nothing against Martinez, either then or now. He's a bit of a square peg behind the plate (100 of 122 runners stole successfully against him last season) and on the basepaths (he grounded into 27 double plays last season), but so long as he keeps posting on-base percentages near .400, nobody is going to care.
No. 36. Roy Oswalt, P, Astros, Age 29 (23)
Remember, we're not handing out grades. We're not concerned about what a player has done in the past, but how he's going to perform in the future. Oswalt has won a major-league best 60 games since the start of the 2004 season. But here's a scary trend -- take a look at his strikeouts per nine innings for each season of his major league career:
The Wizard of Oz still has plenty of tricks up his sleeve, but it's going to be hard for him to sustain ERAs in the high 2's or low 3's when he's striking out fewer batters than the league average.
No. 35. Jason Bay, LF, Pirates, Age 28 (9)
After a 2006 campaign that was ever so slightly disappointing, we have a better idea of what sort of player Bay is going to become: No. 1 PECOTA comparable Tim Salmon. Like Salmon, Bay should be good for a .300 BA, .400 OBP, 30 HR and 100 RBI just about every season. And like Salmon, he's likely to be overshadowed by players who produce worse numbers in a more spectacular fashion.
No. 34. Phil Hughes, P, Yankees, Age 21 (NR)
Is there a better metaphor for the trials and tribulations of a pitching prospect? Young stud pitching no-hitter in second major league start, tweaks his hammy on fluke play, out 4-6 weeks. We haven't docked Hughes' rating very much, since the injury did not occur to his arm. But the Yankees need to remember that many an arm problem developed because a pitcher's lower body was out of kilter. Given Hughes' impeccable minor league track record, the Yankees can afford to be patient.
No. 33. Scott Kazmir, P, Devil Rays, Age 23 (NR)
He just barely edged out Victor Zambrano for this slot. Kazmir has yet to have that one season that gets everyone buzzing -- he had command problems in 2005, injury problems in 2006, and is off to a little bit of a slow start in 2007. But young left-handers with this kind of stuff are rare. Since World War II there have been only 18 occasions in which a left-hander aged 22 or younger struck out more than a batter an inning, as Kazmir did last season (minimum 100 IP). Sure, that list includes Rick Ankiel, but it also includes Sandy Koufax.
No. 32. Lance Berkman, 1B, Astros, Age 31 (38)
Berkman has been strangely tentative at the plate this season, taking the first pitch more than 75 percent of the time even though he owns a .642 lifetime slugging average when putting the first offering into play. Occasionally that can be an indication of a player who's trying to cover up for a lack of bat speed, but considering how consistent he's been -- Berkman owns the 14th highest OPS in major league history -- there's little reason for worry. Besides, how many other players are good for a .400 OBP even when they're slumping?
No. 31. Derek Jeter, SS, Yankees, Age 33 (21)
Karma isn't on Jeter's side these days. First, he lost the American League MVP to Morneau last year, even though he led to the Yankees to the pennant and led the league with an 80.5 VORP. Second, he seems to have taken the worst of his feud with Alex Rodriguez, as no-more-Mr.-Nice-Guy A-Rod hit as many home runs in April as Jeter had all of last season. Jeter was an overrated player for a long time, particularly on defense. Dare we say he's underrated now?
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