Ten bold 2011 fantasy baseball predictions
Don't get sucked into taking weak Yankee pitchers or aging sluggers
Solid rotation, good lineup could make Ryan Braun an NL MVP candidate
Craig Kimbrel, Jake McGee could win Rookie of the Year awards as closers
Go bold or stay home. You likely are already home, unless you're scouting for your fantasy team while at work, which means you're willing to go bold and put your job on the line for your favorite hobby.
You should be commended for your diligence. And we will try to reward you for your loyalty with some bold predictions for 2011.
The problem with predictions is they can look bad at the end of the season. In order to be "bold," though, a prediction has to fly in the face of common sense or public perception. So I'm willing to take the risk.
Here are the top 10 bold predictions for the upcoming baseball season, which, remarkably, is just one week away. Thank goodness for the new, early Thursday opening day!
Why is this bold? A Brewer has never won an NL MVP award. OK, so the Brewers haven't had a long run in this league since moving over from the AL, but they have had a long run without an MVP in either league. It hasn't happened since the end of the Cold War and the toppling of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Milwaukee isn't quite your media metropolis either. Fame wins MVPs, not Brewers.
Why is this going to happen? Prince Fielder is in a contract year as a nice consolation prize for some team (maybe the Cardinals) that doesn't get Albert Pujols in free agency next winter. But, going with a contract-year MVP is a bit too cliché, so let's go with a 27-year old entering his prime to have a career year in front of Fielder, Ryan Braun.
Knowing this, what can we do in fantasy? Get Braun or Fielder on your team. Braun was a first-rounder in SI.com's mock draft and Fielder is a top 10 first baseman. Also, scoop up the sleepers in their supporting cast, namely the likes of Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf.
Why is this bold? The Red Sox are the favorites in the AL Beast, like the Phillies in the NL, namely because of the additions of Adrian Gonzalez and outfielder Carl Crawford. Dustin Pedroia is a former AL Rookie of the Year and MVP. Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz have been critical to the team's success, too. And the rotation has a trio of potential Cy Youngs in Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Cy Buchholz, while John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka make a ton of moolah, too. Ellsbury, 27, is the unsuspected catalyst for Vegas' No. 2 choice to the Phils and AL favorite.
Why is this going to happen? Hitting leadoff, Ellsbury will be the sparkplug to Boston's offense. He is 27, just now in his prime, and coming off a season-crippling rib injury a year ago. His last healthy season in 2009 saw him score No. 2 in fantasy production among outfielders to Braun. If Ellsbury is healthy and hits .280, he will score a ton of runs in front of that All-Star cast.
Knowing this, what can we do in fantasy? Score a big steal on Ellsbury on draft day. He is listed 78th overall in head-to-head average draft position, which slots him 18th among outfielders -- some 15 spots behind Crawford. Ellsbury is going to be better than Crawford. Ellsbury is grossly underrated because of perceived injury risk.
Why is this bold? Carlos Gonzalez became a fantasy star with his '10 breakthrough. Crawford won't take a step back with his step in front of the Green Monster. Josh Hamilton is the reigning AL MVP. Matt Holliday is a top-six fantasy slugger in three-year averages. And Jose Bautista is coming off a 54-homer breakthrough, a total that put him in the top-20, single-season all-time and the widest margin over the opposite league's leader since Barry Bonds hit 73 in 2001.
Why is this going to happen? It happens every year. Outfield can be a dominant part of your fantasy team, but the shear numbers of them at the position make it arguably the most volatile at the top. There tends to be a lot of bunching of production among outfielders, unlike the tiered and more stable infield positions. Ellsbury is going to rise in the ranks from his draft position. Matt Kemp, Nelson Cruz, Andrew McCutchen, Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Michael Stanton (super sophs!) all could (should), too.
Knowing this, what can we do in fantasy? Don't get sucked into drafting outfielders early. Braun is the only real safe bet among first-, if not also second-, rounders. You're better off getting a sure stud in the thinner infield positions and taking a number of stabs at finding the next big thing among outfielders.
Why is this bold? Sure, the AL ROY has been a closer each of the past two seasons (Neftali Feliz in '10, Andrew Bailey in '09) and three of the past six (Huston Street in '05), but both leagues have never given the honor to relievers in the same season. Forever is a long time. Young pitchers just aren't sure things and the closer's role tends to be one bestowed on those with experience getting big outs late in games.
Why is this going to happen? The Braves' Craig Kimbrel is the highest-ranked rookie in SI.com's preseason rookie rankings and the highest-ranking rookie in the Top 300. Only Rays rookie Jeremy Hellickson is coming off the board before Kimbrel in average draft position (albeit too early at No. 114). Kimbrel, as the soon-to-be-named Braves closer, is an easy favorite for NL ROY. It is Jake McGee in the AL who is going to surprise in the AL. McGee has enjoyed a great spring and the starting pitching-rich Rays are currently counting on the likes of Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta to close games. That can't end well. McGee is going to accelerate his learning curve perhaps as fast as Feliz did, taking over the closer's role at some point. If you don't buy it with McGee as much as Kimbrel, you shouldn't overlook Chris Sale for the White Sox as a sleeper to close as well.
Knowing this, what can we do in fantasy? Get Kimbrel, McGee and perhaps Sale on your fantasy team, obviously, and don't block that position in your auction or draft with the shaky closers, say a Francisco Cordero or Brad Lidge. Drafting closers early or often is never advisable. There is a sucker born every day that does, but there is a Feliz-like sleeper born every year.
Why is this bold? The Yankees have four of the top 20 in fantasy's average draft position: Robinson Cano (10th), Mark Teixeira (15th), CC Sabathia (18th) and Alex Rodriguez (20th). They also have 13 players in SI.com's preseason Top 300. But overall this is not going to be your typical Yankee year in terms of fantasy greatness.
Why is this going to happen? The rotation is going to falter behind Sabathia and third-year starting pitcher Phil Hughes. A.J. Burnett is already a mystery wrapped in an enigma, and the Yankees have pinned their hopes to the back end of their rotation with the likes of two of shoulder injury retreads, Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, or rookie Ivan Nova. The left side of the infield also happens to be 35 (A-Rod) and 36 (Jeter). One, or both, will be spending time on the DL this season. Their closer, Mariano Rivera, is 41 and catcher/DH Jorge Posada is 39. You cannot cheat father time, no matter how much money you have.
Knowing this, what can we do in fantasy? Don't be sucked into the Yankees' back-end starters just because they pitch for the Yankees. Also, don't overrate the Yankees' bats just because they are Yankees. Their name recognition will probably do that for them enough.
Why is this bold? Two-time Cy Young Roy Halladay, the clear No. 1 among starting pitchers is a Phillie, as is former Cy Young Cliff Lee, two-time 20-game-winner Roy Oswalt and contract-year, 27-year-old Cole Hamels. Those are four pretty good favorites, and when you put them together, you have to figure one of them will lead the position and win the NL Cy Young.
Why is this going to happen? Tim Lincecum, a two-time Cy Young award winner, pitches for the Giants. Gallardo and former Cy Young winner Greinke will be dueling aces for the Brewers. And Tommy Hanson and Mat Latos are in the category of promising third-year starting pitchers. Pitchers notoriously offer varying degrees of return on investment year to year in fantasy. Johan Santana and Lincecum have outscored Halladay and his Phils company before. The official futures on NL Cy Young are tough to find yet, but Hanson is going to be a nice sleeper after the favorites of Halladay, Lincecum and Lee. Gallardo will be, too.
Knowing this, what can we do in fantasy? Don't avoid the Phillies starters. In fact, try to get Oswalt and/or Hamels on your team if you miss out on Halladay, Lincecum and Lee. But also figure a way to get your hands on one, or two, of Gallardo, Greinke, Hanson or Latos. You want to draft this year's best fantasy arms, not last season's. There are sure to be some surprises among the elite at the position, like Ubaldo Jimenez a season ago.
Why is this bold? Cano is clearly the No. 1 fantasy second baseman to target on draft day. He should be a first-rounder in any format, especially since Dustin Pedroia is coming off an injury-plagued season, Chase Utley has no set return date amid chronic knee issues and Ian Kinsler has never put a full season together. Cano is a lefty with that short right-field porch in Yankee Stadium and hitting amid a presumably hole-less veteran lineup.
Why is this going to happen? Pedroia is going to be healthy and putting on a laser show and Kinsler is going to be a candidate to go .300-30-100-100-30, perhaps finally, at age 28. We would also like to say Utley is going to have one more big year, but at 32, he looks like he is past his prime.
Knowing this, what can we do in fantasy? Not much. You still have to rank the second basemen the same. But you might be better off taking a slugger at another position in Round 1 and waiting for Pedroia, Kinsler or Utley (maybe) to fall to you after the top 30 are off the board.
Why is this bold? There are some very prominent names among third baseman in baseball, namely Evan Longoria at No. 1. It has historically been considered one of the better offensive positions in baseball, next to first base and outfield. It also hasn't been overwhelmingly consistently outstanding all-around in the past few years.
Why is this going to happen? Third base just might have flopped under second base and shortstop as the second-thinnest position in fantasy to catchers. Outside of Longoria there just aren't a lot of sure things. A-Rod is past his prime, David Wright is up and down every year and Bautista was a nowhere man before last season. Ryan Zimmerman has strangely gone in the first round in some drafts, perhaps because he is 27. And that is just the top tier. The second, third and fourth tiers are a muddled mess as well.
Knowing this, what can we do in fantasy? If you don't get Longoria in Round 1, you are likely best off waiting a long time to fill the position. You're not getting a whole lot of certainty here. Closer might be the only position with less trustworthy options throughout.
Why is this bold? The Rays and Yankees are good enough to make the playoffs, but they won't. The AL West should be plenty competitive from the always-tough Angels, defending champion Rangers and improving A's. Of those five contenders, just one of them will make the playoffs. The Twins and White Sox aren't the top of people's mind when thinking about the stars of baseball or fantasy. They will content and will do so on the backs of some fantasy-sleeper players.
Why is this going to happen? The Twins, despite having some chronic injury woes by Joe Mauer (knee), still fantasy's No. 1 catcher, and Justin Morneau (post-concussion syndrome), overachieve every year. The White Sox also are vastly improved with the addition of Adam Dunn taking aim at homers in a hitter-friendly park in Chicago. Jake Peavy's (shoulder) loss hurts, but if he can prove healthy at some point, the Sox have enough pitching to complement a potentially potent offense and win the AL wild card. Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Edwin Jackson and Gavin Floyd aren't anyone's beloved targets in fantasy, but they are going to get plenty of run support and all of them could win 15-plus games.
Knowing this, what can we do in fantasy? Load up on Twins and White Sox, particularly late. There are 15 Twins and 15 White Sox in SI.com's Top 300; only the Red Sox have more. Unlike Boston, Minnesota and the second team in the second city don't draw the attention in the lost Central division like the East Side/West Side gang rivalries do. Their players tend to prove to be nice sleepers. The winner of the Twins and White Sox closer battles will be huge bargains and their starters are nice low-investment mound aces. Tsuyoshi Nishioka could be an AL ROY sleeper, along with the aforementioned Sale, if he can wrest the closer's job from Matt Thornton. Gordon Beckham is a breakthrough player of the year candidate and Morneau a potential comeback player of the year.
Why is this bold? Who cares about a utilityman? No one really does, outside of deeper non-mixed leagues. The Red Sox have a veteran infield with Gonzalez, Youk, Pedroia and Marco Scutaro. There is little promise for at-bats by Lowrie outside of being a reserve at all those positions. Lowrie is ranked a mere 23rd among shortstops and is outside the top 20 in average draft position for the position.
Why is this going to happen? Scutaro is going to reveal himself to be the real super utilityman for the Red Sox and Lowrie is going to be a roster savior for fantasy owners in deeper leagues with versatility around the infield. It might not happen before June, but Lowrie is going to become the Red Sox's starting shortstop, hit 20-plus homers and perform like a top-10, if not a top-five, fantasy shortstop this season.
Knowing this, what can we do in fantasy? Stash Lowrie if you have room in mixed leagues and consider him a must-have late-rounder in deeper formats on draft day. His pop among shortstops and versatility among everyone will prove invaluable for a player that might not even be drafted in most leagues this March.
If a lot of these predictions seem less-than-bold, you have probably spent a lot of your waking hours, or working hours, following this writer's fantasy baseball season preview. They seem like sure things to me, but they can be considered bold when measured against the perceptions of the masses.
Good luck with your drafts and enjoy watching the season unfold with us all.
You can mock Eric Mack, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter @EricMackFantasy. Hit him up. He honestly has nothing better to do with his free time.
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