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Archive March 2008

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RW Fantasy Sports Hour: Tuesday's Guests: Jeff Erickson and Eric Hinz; plus Jimmy Rollins Podcast now up

You know who Erickson is. Eric Hinz authors the blog Faketeams.com.

Here's a link to the Jimmy Rollins podcast:

Tigers Hit for Average

Take a look at the Tigers' lineup (when Curtis Granderson's healthy), along with their full-season career-high batting averages:

  1. Curtis Granderson: (.302, 612 AB, 2007)

  2. Placido Polanco: (.341, 587 AB, 2007)

  3. Gary Sheffield: (.330, 576 AB, 2003)

  4. Magglio Ordonez: (.363 595 AB, 2007)

  5. Miguel Cabrera: (.339 576 AB, 2006)

  6. Carlos Guillen: (.320 543 AB, 2006)

  7. Edgar Renteria: (.332 494 AB, 2007)

  8. Ivan Rodriguez*: (.334 527 AB, 2004)

  9. Jacque Jones**: (.304 517 AB, 2003)

* Pudge hit .347 in 2000, but had just 363 at-bats.
** Jones is a .294 career hitter vs. righties (which is all he'll face).

I realize career-high averages of players like Sheffield, Pudge and Ordonez aren't likely to be repeated, but except for Jones, Granderson and Guillen, everyone in this lineup has hit more than .330 in a full season!. And Guillen's hit .320 TWICE and the other two have hit .300. Also, four of the career highs were put up last year and two in 2006, i.e., most of these seasons are not ancient history. These aren't Jason Giambi/Frank Thomas types with no chance of hitting .300 again.

American League East Preview

1. New York Yankees

Offense: The Yankees led Major League Baseball last season in runs scored (by 76), batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Thatís pretty good, especially when you consider their ballpark is very tough on right-handed hitters. Even though Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada canít be expected to repeat last yearís numbers, Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera and Johnny Damon should all show improvement in an absolutely loaded lineup. With Wilson Betemit, Shelley Duncan and Morgan Ensberg, New York also possesses a deep bench. With Joe Torreís corpse out of town, the team might actually show some passion this season as well.

Pitching: Itís not a great rotation, but with Chien-Ming Wang, Phil Hughes, Andy Pettitte and Ian Kennedy, it should be good enough to let the offense win games. Hughesí returned velocity is terrific news for the franchise. If Joba Chamberlain joins the rotation after the All-Star break, the pitching might even become a major positive. Expect Mariano Rivera to lose a full run off last yearís ERA.

Outlandish fantasy prediction: Robinson Cano turns in a .310-25-110-120 season.

2. Boston Red Sox (wild card)

Offense: The Red Sox allowed the fewest runs in baseball last year. Factoring in ballpark effects and their division, there might not have been a more impressive statistic. Their offense scored the fourth most runs, and that was with Manny Ramirez missing 30 games and finishing with his lowest OPS since his rookie season. Despite the media insisting David Ortiz had a down year, 2007 was actually the best season of his career. While Mike Lowell is going to regress, Boston can reasonably expect much better production from Julio Lugo, J.D. Drew, Ramirez and their center fielder. Itís a very good lineup.

Pitching: The bullpen is a strength, but Bostonís starting rotation has its problems, starting with the enigmatic Dice-K. His lack of command makes him an unreliable bet to reach the seventh inning on any given night. Jon Lester and Tim Wakefield are decent back-end options, but Clay Buchholz is the key. Heís going to be special, but that still likely means an up-and-down 2008. Josh Beckett, one of the greatest postseason performers in the history of the sport, needs to stay healthy. If he a does, a Cy Young type season is likely to follow.

Outlandish fantasy prediction: Julio Lugo swipes 50 bags.

3. Toronto Blue Jays

Offense: Although Toronto would likely win the AL West, itís once again destined for a third place finish stuck in the ultra-competitive East. The lineup isnít that impressive, and itíll take healthy seasons from Frank Thomas and Vernon Wells for it to even approach average. Lyle Overbay should bounce back, and Aaron Hill could challenge for the league-lead in homers at his position. Alex Rios is the teamís best hope of any hitter reaching a .900 OPS.

Pitching: Although B.J. Ryan canít be counted on, Roy Halladay, A.J. Burnett and Dustin McGowan form a top-3 with the most upside of any staff in baseball. Of course, Burnettís health is a huge question mark, but heís pitching with his eyes on a big contract next season, so heíll be plenty motivated. During the second half of 2007, McGowan had a 2:1 G/F ratio, the second lowest BAA in baseball and a 2.89 ERC. However, an increased workload is something that needs to be monitored.

Outlandish fantasy prediction: Dustin McGowan finishes as the Blue Jaysí most valuable pitcher.

4. Tampa Bay Rays

Offense: There isnít another team in all of baseball better set up for the future. Still, there will be growing pains in 2008, and itís a major obstacle playing in the AL East. The defense should be much improved with Jason Bartlett at short and B.J. Upton in center, but the recent demotion of Evan Longoria for financial purposes only shows the franchise still just doesnít get it. Carlos Pena isnít going to hit a home run every 10.7 at-bats again, but heís here to stay as a legitimate power force. He strikes out too often to be any better than a .280 hitter, but his isolated power reveals a true slugger; heís among the favorites to finish in the top 3-5 in HRs in MLB this season. R.I.P. Rocco Baldelli.

Pitching: The Scott Kazmir injury is a killer; hopefully, itís a minor setback, as the club would much rather him miss a month or two this season and have him healthy when the youngsters are ready in a year or two than the alternative, which features a knife and Dr. James Andrews. The bullpen is a weakness, but Kazmir is a legit ace in the making, and James Shields is a solid No. 2. There isnít a franchise more loaded with pitching talent in the minors than Tampa Bay.

Outlandish fantasy prediction: Boss Junior is the next member of the 40/40 club.

5. Baltimore Orioles

Offense: Not a lot to like here, but at least Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis and Pacman Jones give the team some hope for the future. Luis Hernandez is probably the worst hitter in baseball, while Kevin Millar is the worst cleanup hitter in the game. Jones could easily approach a 20/20 season in 2008, but he has a ton of work to do as a center fielder, despite having the athleticism to be a gold glover.

Pitching: The Oriolesí rotation is a mess, especially since Jeremy Guthrie is due for a major regression in 2008. Iím not sure if the Leo Mazzone chicken and egg quandary was ever answered, but his stock certainly canít be looked at the same after his tenure in Baltimore. Odds are Daniel Cabreraís top-notch stuff never results into an above average pitcher, but heís the most likely undrafted fantasy pitcher to finish in the top-15.

Outlandish fantasy prediction: Nick Markakis is a top-20 player.

American League West Preview

1. Los Angeles Angels

Offense: The loss of John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar combined with Seattleís addition of Erik Bedard makes this a competitive division, if not also the weakest in baseball. For a team that usually considers pitching its strength, the Angels actually scored the sixth most runs in baseball last season. Vladimir Guerreroís body is beginning to break down, but heís still an elite hitter. Torii Hunter improves the defense and gives the Angels some nice depth, but heís not a big difference maker Ė he has a career OBP of .324. Still, Howie Kendrick and Casey Kotchman should really break out this season, giving Anaheim just enough offense to once again secure the AL West.

Pitching: All the injuries to the pitching staff make the Orlando Cabrera for Jon Garland deal look less bad, and Jered Weaver is ready to become the ace of the staff. One of these years, Ervin Santana is going to put it all together and deliver a fine season, and it might very well be in 2008. Joe Saunders worked hard over the offseason and makes a decent back-end guy, but Scot Shields looks finished as an elite setup man. Itís a good thing Anaheim had depth, because Escobarís career is in serious jeopardy, and Lackey really canít be counted on right now.

Outlandish fantasy prediction: Howie Kendrick wins the AL batting crown.

2. Seattle Mariners

Offense: Seattle had a better record than team last year, but with Erik Bedard in town and a crumbling Angels squad, the Mariners enter 2008 with eyes toward winning the AL West. However, the offense is not very good, especially if Adrian Beltreís wrist injury proves troublesome. Richie Sexson bouncing back would go a long way toward rectifying that problem, but at age 33, heís clearly in decline. Jose Vidro isnít a bad hitter, but a .394 slugging percentage from your DH is unacceptable.

Pitching: Seattle potentially has baseballís best one-two punch in Bedard and Felix Hernandez, but their 3-5 is pretty ugly, although Jarrod Washburn has been impressive this spring. Bedard has gotten off to a rocky start in Seattle, both with the media and on the mound, but he has 300-strikeout potential. Heís never reached 200 innings in a season during his career, but none of the injuries have been arm related, and they have kept his workload down. Kenji Johjimaís fault or not, Hernandez still needs to improve his command. However, the fact he has great strikeout potential is one thing; the fact he accompanied that with a 2.67 G/F ratio is quite another. Itís really a mystery why heís been so hittable. Only health can stop King Felix from winning multiple Cy Young awards.

Outlandish fantasy prediction: Felix Hernandez goes 18-8 with a 2.98 ERA and 210 Ks.

3. Oakland Aís

Offense: Although the Aís are clearly in rebuild mode and are projected to be cellar dwellers by most, it should surprise no one if they were still in the AL West mix come August. Of course, that would take the unlikely scenario of a full season from Rich Harden, as well as Joe Blanton and Huston Street staying put. Billy Beane deserves all the credit in the world, but he was mistaken when he chose Eric Chavez as the one guy to keep long-term. Bobby Crosby isnít going to ever win that MVP the ESPN talking heads predicted, but he could surprise in 2008. The same could be said for Chris Denorfia and Travis Buck. Jack Cust leaves little up to chance, as heís a big proponent of the gameís three true outcomes.

Pitching: Like Mark Prior, health has prevented Harden from compiling multiple Cy Young awards on his shelf; he has top-5 stuff in the game. His impressive outing against Boston earlier this week makes him more of a sell-high candidate in fantasy leagues than it does reliable, but heíd likely be a top-10 pitcher if he somehow reached 190 innings. Three years from now, a rotation featuring Harden, Gio Gonzalez, Fautino de los Santos and Brett Anderson will make the Aís World Series contenders.

Outlandish fantasy prediction: Jack Cust clubs 40 homers.

4. Texas Rangers

Offense: The Rangers will undoubtedly finish with a top-10 offense, but their pitching will ultimately lead to another disappointing record. Milton Bradley will rake in between DL stints, Hank Blalock should approach 100-RBI hitting cleanup, and Ian Kinsler could go 20/30. Josh Hamilton is a truly special talent, and what heís come back from is nothing short of remarkable.

Pitching: Ironically, Texas pitched much better at home (4.29 ERA) than on the road (5.25 ERA) last season. They enter 2008 as the favorites to finish with the worst team ERA in all of baseball. Of course, their home park doesnít help, but neither does the lack of talent. Not one starter can be safely projected with an ERA of less than 4.50. The bullpen isnít much better either.

Outlandish fantasy prediction: Josh Hamilton leads the American League in home runs.

Player Evaluation

Someone posted a question about this in the forums, and I figured it would be useful to address it here, too:

The first thing we do when we evaluate a player is figure out what his numbers will look like. We create a projection for him. Everyone does this to an extent - you look at Adam Dunn and think - he'll probably hit 40, but his average could be around .250. (After I wrote that, I checked out Erickson's projection for him, and it turns out those are his projections exactly!).

But once we have everyone's projected (estimated) numbers, we still have the problem of translating those numbers into a ranking (or dollar value). You can just eyeball it and say you'd rather have Adam Dunn than Andruw Jones, but it gets tricky when we compare different kinds of players. Let's take Ryan Howard's stats from last year - 47 HR, 136 RBI, 94 R, 1 SB, .268 in 529 AB, and Ichiro's: 6 HR, 68 RBI, 111 R, 37 SB, .351 in 678 AB.

Which numbers are worth more? What basis do we even have for answering that? I guess you could eyeball it and decide which one was more of an outlier, but that's imprecise, and maybe you'd pick the wrong one.

To do this more precisely you need to take into account two factors: (1) Value Above Replacement and (2) Standard Deviation

The first one is easy enough to understand. If a player in a 12-team mixed league hits 12 homers, how much is that really helping you? Let's say there are 14 offensive players per team. That's 168 total offensive players. So players 169-190 or so are what we call "replacement value".

Those are the guys on your bench or on the waiver wire. Let's say the average HR total for those players is 10. So your 12 HR guy is really only getting you 2 HRs in that category. If you had a 3 HR guy, he'd be giving you -7 HRs. Remember every roster spot on your team has an opportunity cost. (Even before taking position scarcity into account).

OK, so we can do this value above replacement calculation for each category, pitching and hitting. But we still have a problem. Because let's say Ryan Howard is 37 HRs about replacement, but 12 points below replacement in batting average. Let's say he's plus 60 in RBI, plus 35 in runs, -6 in steals. And let's say Ichiro is plus-76 points in batting average (adjusted for his 678 at-bats which is about 120 percent of the average starter's). And Ichiro is plus 45 runs, minus 2 HR and minus 10 RBI. Which player is better, Howard or Ichiro?

There's no way to know without being able to compare ACROSS categories. How do we know if 47 HRs is worth more than a .351 average in 678 at-bats? The answer: Standard deviation.

Let's take last year's stats as an example: If we take into account the stats of every player in your league, we can come up with the standard deviation (the average amount by which a player differs from the mean) in each category). In other words, if there are 168 hitters drafted (14 hitters, 12 teams), then among those hitters, there's a mean (or average for each category). It might be 20 HR, 80 RBI, 85 R, .280, or something like that. Now if the average amount of home runs is 20, the standard deviation in home runs is the average amount a player differs from 20 home runs. In Howard's case, that number was 27. He hit 27 more home runs than the average. In Ichiro's case, it was 14. he hit 14 homers less than the average. But other players hit 21, just one off the average. Some hit 16, four off the average. If you average out all those differences (27, 14, 1, 4, etc.) for all 168 players, then you find the standard deviation for home runs. Let's say is was 8.

Now remember a player's stats don't start to count positively until they've done better than what's freely available on the waiver wire, i.e., until they are better than replacement value. And in a 12-team mixed league, we argued that the average replacement player was good for roughly 10 home runs. So Howard, who hit 47, was 37 home runs better than replacement. And how good is 37 better than replacement?

We can figure that out by asking the question: "How many standard deviations above replacement is it?" The answer: 37/8 or a little more than 4.5. So Howard's home runs are worth 4.5 on our scale. Ichiro batted .351 in 678 at-bats. How much better was that than replacement? First, we'd look at what the replacement batting average was - .275. So .351 -.275 = 76 points. Then we'd figure out what the average of 168 drafted players was. We came up with .280. We'd need to find the standard deviation - how much is the average difference from .280? Ichiro differs by 71, Howard differs by 12, other players differ by a few, let's say the average is 15 points. (I'm making these numbers up, but just roll with me here). It's 15 points, and Ichiro is 76 above replacement, so he gets 76/15 - roughly five points for average. But, he also has more at-bats than the average drafted player who has 500 or so. So that five points needs to be multiplied by 678/500. So Ichiro gets closer to seven points for batting average.

These numbers aren't precise (I'm making up the SD as we go for the purposes of this question) - though I do think Ichiro's contribution to batting average was probably bigger than Howard's to HRs in last year's context, but you get the idea. You need to compare players category by category in the context of the league to know which is more valuable. It's not simple, but understanding how it works can help you from underestimating average or overestimating other categories - they're all worth the same amount, and the question is really - how much of an outlier is each contribution relative to the rest of the league.

Once you get the number of standard deviations above replacement for each player for each category you can add them up. In Ichiro's case, it might be (and I'm making this up, too): +7 for average, -1 for HRs, -.5 for RBI +3 for runs, +4 for SB. You get 12.5. You can generate a total for every hitter.

To convert that into dollar values, you figure out the total amount of money spent on hitting in your $260 league - let's say $160 * 12 = 1920. That means the total dollar values of the top 168 players need to equal 1920. You add up all the totals (Ichiro's was 12.5) and get a number. Let's say it's 600. You divide 1920 by 600 which is 3.2. So you multiply each player's raw total by 3.2 to get his dollar. 12.5 * 3.2 = $40 in a 12-team mixed league. (Of course, I'm making these numbers up).

Now there are a lot of other components I'm leaving out like position scarcity and projection reliability (Derek Jeter's projections are far more reliable than Justin Upton's, for example), but this at least gives us the ability to compare and evaluate different kinds of players on one cheat sheet.

National League Central Preview

1. Milwaukee Brewers

Offense: The NL Central was the Brewersí to lose last season, and although they did just that, they enter 2008 with a much improved team. Remember, last year they didnít get full seasons from any of Ben Sheets, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks and Yovani Gallardo. The Mike Cameron addition also upgraded the outfield. Fielder, Braun, and Hart form one the leagueís best heart of the orders, and Weeks is also capable of posting a .900 OPS season. The team defense should be exponentially better this year as well.

Pitching: Sheets could still win the Cy Young one day, and his strikeout rate did return after a lackluster April last season, but the odds are stacked against him reaching 180 innings at this point. He is pitching for a contract, but so far his body has really failed him. Heís the single most important aspect of the Brewersí 2008 season. Yovani Gallardoís knee injury may be a blessing in disguise, as itíd be in Milwaukeeís best interest if he didnít eclipse 180-190 innings this season anyway. As long as he doesnít alter his mechanics to compensate, he should be an excellent starter for years to come. Jeff Suppan is one of the most overpaid players in the game, and David Bushís peripherals just donít lead to good ERAs, but Manny Parra gives the Brewers a top-3 that will be formidable come October.

Outlandish fantasy prediction: Rickie Weeks goes 30/30.

2. Chicago Cubs

Offense: The Cubs have a solid team, but itís not exactly a powerhouse, and they are pretty thin up the middle. Aramis Ramirez is Chicagoís best hitter, but he has durability concerns, and Alfonso Sorianoís leg issues are becoming an issue. Kosuke Fukudome has a great name and should post a solid OBP, but Geovany Soto is hardly a lock to even resemble the hitter he was last season. He could be a big disappointment.

Pitching: A terrific spring has eased concerns regarding Carlos Zambranoís sinking K rate and mileage on his arm, but he still needs to learn command in order to reach his potential. Rich Hill and Ted Lilly are solid No. 2 and No. 3 guys, but after that, itís pray for rain. Maybe Jon Lieber emerges as a decent back of the rotation option, but the Cubs plan on entering the season relying on both Jason Marquis and Ryan Dempster to fill that role, something that should cost them plenty of games. The bullpen, however, should be a strength.

Outlandish fantasy prediction: Carlos Zambrano finishes as a top-10 starter.

3. Cincinnati Reds

Offense: Now hereís a sleeper team, Dusty Baker notwithstanding. Jay Bruce, Joey Votto and Homer Bailey arenít quite ready, but the future most certainly looks bright in Cincinnati. Brandon Phillips and Ken Griffey Jr. will be hard pressed to repeat what they did last season, but Edwin Encarnacion should finally break out, and Adam Dunn will be clogging up the bases all season long. Next year, they might be the favorites to win the division.

Pitching: Aaron Harangís workload is concerning, but Bronson Arroyo was unlucky last year, so expect a bounce back campaign in 2008. Moreover, Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez (and later Bailey) give the rotation serious upside, and both are capable of posting sub-4 ERAs as soon as this year, even with the home park against them. When pitching outside of Milwaukee, Francisco Cordero posted a 6.55 ERA and 1.55 WHIP last season, so it seemed a little short-sighted to hand $46 million to someone who will factor in to about four percent of the Redsí innings this year.

Outlandish fantasy prediction: Corey Patterson steals 50 bases.

4. Houston Astros

Offense: Houston has some nice pieces, and the lineup should be improved with the Miguel Tejada addition and a full season from Hunter Pence, but there are also some pretty big holes in the lineup. Kaz Matsui had a line of .249/.304/.333 outside of Coors Field last year, Ty Wigginton is one of the gameís weaker hitting third baseman, and although Michael Bourn is an extremely valuable fantasy commodity, heís not much of an asset to the Astros. Tejada and Lance Berkman are also entering the decline phases of their careers.

Pitching: Speaking of decline, Roy Oswalt falls directly into that category as well. Even if he halts that trend, Houston sports quite possibly baseballís worst 2-5 starters. Last yearís 4.68 team ERA is only going to get worse. Jose Valverde is unhittable when on, but the rest of the bullpen is pretty shaky. This franchise needs to start from scratch.

Outlandish fantasy prediction: Roy Oswalt isnít a top-30 starter.

5. St. Louis Cardinals

Offense: How the mighty have fallen. In the Cardsí Opening Day lineup, five hitters will have a career OPS of .730 or (much) lower. Troy Glaus, Chris Duncan and Rick Ankiel do provide some punch to go along with Albert Pujols, but theyíll also provide a ton of strikeouts. If this team is in fifth place come July, it would make an awful lot of sense for Pujols to just get it over with and go under the knife.

Pitching: Adam Wainwright, who had a 2.71 ERA and 1.25 WHIP after the All-Star break last season, is developing into a fine pitcher to lead the staff. At least St. Louis didnít get ripped off by Atlanta in that deal. With Chris Carpenter, Joel Pineiro, Mark Mulder and Matt Clement residing on the DL, the rest of the rotation is a mess. Itís unclear if Anthony Reyes is dating Dave Duncanís daughter, but for some reason, the two have a tension-filled relationship, leading to the teamís second most talented starter relegated to long-relief, despite his impressive spring.

Outlandish fantasy prediction: Anthony Reyes gets traded and flourishes.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates

Offense: Thereís not much to like here. Jason Bay should bounce back, and Nate McLouth should upgrade center field, but thereís little punch to this lineup. Xavier Nady is a candidate to get dealt, Freddy Sanchezís shoulder is still a concern, and the left side of the infield is the most unproductive in baseball. For whatever reason, Adam LaRoche is a career .184/.282/.354 hitter during April.

Pitching: Itíd be nice if Ian Snell further developed a third pitch, but heís an ace in the making nevertheless. Tom Gorzelanny is a decent enough No. 3 or 4 starter, but heís acting as Pittís No. 2, and his 3.88 ERA last season was a fluke. Last yearís deadline deal to acquire Matt Morris was a microcosm of the poorly run franchise. Morris, the teamís highest paid player, had a hideous 29:22 K:BB ratio over 62 innings in Pittsburgh. Matt Capps has to be considered a top-10 fantasy closer.

Outlandish fantasy prediction: Ian Snell is a more valuable pitcher than Roy Oswalt, finishing with 200 strikeouts.

Fantasy and MVP challenge: James vs Paul

The Hornets and Cavaliers played an outstanding game Wednesday night, exchanging last-second daggers in what was eventually a one point victory for New Orleans. The highlight of this game was the match-up of LeBron James and Chris Paul, the youngest two members of the MVP debate. James and Paul are not only MVP favorites, but they also are battling for the crown of fantasy basketball player of the year. Letís take a minute here to make their cases for both real life and fantasy MVP, then Iíll sit back and let you make the final decision on which of these two youíd take for each.

LeBron James

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, James is the most gifted physical specimen in the NBA. He is 6-9, 260 pounds, as fast as a guard, as strong as a center, and can out jump anyone. On top of the physical skills, though, James also has excellent floor vision and basketball instincts which make his ceiling as a player non-existent. He is the primary ballhandler, the best distributor, the best scorer, and at times the best rebounder on the Cavs and his 31-point/7-assist/8-rebound averages this season let us know that he could legitimately average a triple-double in the near future. James has also developed a killer instinct, leading the NBA in fourth quarter scoring and making himself one of the most feared players in basketball at the end of games. He is dominating the APBR-metric stats for player efficiency rating (PER), and when he was injured earlier in the season the Cavaliers were winless which helps indicate how important he is to his team. Ultimately, the strongest argument against him winning the MVP is that his team doesnít have enough wins, and players from teams with less than 50 wins are almost never chosen as MVP.

Fantasy-wise, outside of the obvious 31/7/8, James is also one of only six players in the NBA to average at least one 3-pointer, blocked shot, and steal per game. Jamesí Achilles heel remains free throw shooting, but it has improved slightly this season and with all of his other numbers James is by-far the favorite to be the first overall player taken in fantasy drafts next season.

Chris Paul

While James is a physical one-man show, Paul is like a master puppeteer on the court. He uses his knowledge of his own skills, his teammatesí strengths/weaknesses, and the weak spots of the opposing defense to control every aspect of the game with the ball in his hands. He has proven time and again that he is willing to take, and make, the big shot at the end of games but perhaps more importantly he is also willing to make the correct pass (as he did Wednesday night in setting up David West for the game winner). Paul is lightening quick with the ball in his hands, and his hands are perhaps even quicker on defense where he leads the NBA in steals. Paul elevates the play of his teammates by putting them in the best positions to succeed, which is why he is widely credited for the improvements of David West, Tyson Chandler, and Peja Stojakovic this season. Ultimately, his MVP candidacy rests upon where the Hornets finish in the Western Conference: if the Hornets are the number one seed out west, Paul could very well win the MVP.

Fantasy-wise, Paul leads the NBA in assists and steals, is the only 20-point/10-assist player in the NBA, shoots 50% from the field and 85% from the line, knocks down 1.2 treys, and is ranked number one in just about every fantasy rater. The fact that he was also drafted later than James in every league should also be an advantage for Paul in the race for fantasy MVP.

So, who do you choose as your fantasy MVP? Are either of these your real-life MVP, and if so what makes you choose one over the other? For those looking for Kobe or KG in the MVP debate, they get their turn in this space next week.

National League East Preview

1. New York Mets

Offense: Over the last couple of years, the Mets have gone from a team loaded with offensive talent that just got by with their starting staff to a franchise entering 2008 relying on pitching. Itís not that the offense isnít good, but itís an aging group, with Carlos Delgado and Moises Alou no longer reliable. Neither is Luis Castillo or the catching situation. Still, David Wright and Carlos Beltran are elite hitters, and Jose Reyes should have a better season than last year. Ryan Church will be an asset against righties, and New York will take nothing for granted after last seasonís historical collapse.

Pitching: The Johan Santana acquisition made the Mets the NLís frontrunner, and a healthy looking Pedro Martinez this spring only solidified that. Oliver Perez is still erratic, but heís pitching for a contract and combines with John Maine to form a deep rotation. The fifth starter role is murky, as Orlando Hernandez appears done, and Mike Pelfrey is perpetually disappointing. However, that wonít matter come October, and the bullpen is solid enough.

Outlandish fantasy prediction: Pedro Martinez finishes 2008 as one of the 15 most valuable pitchers.

2. Atlanta Braves (Wild Card)

Offense: After the Bravesí impressive division title run finally came to an end, a rebuilding process seemed inevitable. Apparently, that process was extremely short-lived, as Atlanta enters 2008 with a roster capable of reaching the World Series. Of course, itís also a team thatís going to rely on health more than most. Top to bottom, the Braves have the most rounded lineup in the National League. Chipper Jones is sure to miss 20-30 games, but heís still one of the gameís top-5 hitters when in the batterís box. A full season of Mark Teixeira, the continued maturation of Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar and bigger things from Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur should lead to plenty of runs put on the board. Matt Diaz is one of the better hitters no one talks about, and while Mark Kotsay is done, Atlantaís farm system is capable of improving center field later on.

Pitching: John Smoltzís health means everything. He doesnít think his latest case of shoulder soreness is serious, but itís clear his career has an expiration date approaching. Tim Hudson has followed up a superb 2007 with a terrific spring, so it looks like heís truly back to form. Tom Glavine fills the role of the proverbial ďinnings-eater,Ē while Chuck James and Jair Jurrjens provide solid depth. Anything the team can get out of Mike Hampton is gravy. The bullpen, however, is in big trouble if Rafael Soriano goes down.

Outlandish fantasy prediction: Jeff Francoeur drives in 125 runs.

3. Philadelphia Phillies

Offense: Despite Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Shane Victorino missing a combined 79 games due to injury, the Phillies led the NL in runs scored last season, finishing only behind the Yankees in all of baseball. Jimmy Rollins is likely to regress, but the addition of Pedro Feliz improves the defense, and better health should result in yet another potent lineup. Howard set an MLB record with 199 strikeouts despite a DL-stint, but heís the favorite to lead the league in HRs and RBI nevertheless. If every team in MLB held a draft from scratch, Utley would be a first round pick.

Pitching: Cole Hamels and Brett Myers have the potential to form the best front-end of a rotation in the game, and if Hamels somehow reaches 200 innings, heíd be a major threat to win the Cy Young; his changeup is one of the five best pitches in baseball. However, Jamie Moyer, Kyle Kendrick and Adam Eaton form a downright ugly bottom of the rotation. Itís a major team weakness that will ultimately be their downfall. Iím setting the over/under on Eatonís ERA at 6.0. The bullpen is also quite shaky, led by the flappable Brad Lidge.

Outlandish fantasy prediction: Brett Myers wins 20 games.

4. Washington Nationals

Offense: Nationals GM Jim Bowden is a man after my own heart, compiling unproven offensive talent with tons of upside, character issues be damned. Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge arenít going to win any humanitarian awards anytime soon, but combined with Austin Kearns and eventually Wily Mo Pena, this outfield could be potent. With Ryan Zimmerman ready to bust out and Nick Johnson back in action, the Nationals arenít going to finish last in runs scored like they did last season, especially with the move out of RFK Stadium. However, Iím beginning to think Felipe Lopez just isnít a very good hitter.

Pitching: John Patterson, the teamís would-be Opening Day starter, was cut; so naturally, Odalis Perez, who they just recently signed, gets the nod. Yes, the rotation is a complete mess. Even in NL-only leagues, itís doubtful any of the five starters will be usable throughout the season. They also wonít have the benefit of RFK, which suppressed homers more than any other stadium in the league last year.

Outlandish fantasy prediction: Lastings Milledge turns in a 25/20 campaign, helping win many fantasy titles Ė and our hearts.

5. Florida Marlins

Offense: Refusing to spend money, the Marlins are seemingly always in rebuilding mode. That is, when they arenít winning the World Series, of course. With Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis now gone, Florida truly is starting from scratch, and Cameron Maybin, the centerpiece of the deal, isnít ready to help the big club. Hanley Ramirez is one of the best offensive players in the game, and heíll need another monster year for the Marlins to approach mediocrity. Jeremy Hermida has a bunch of talent, but heís more likely to disappoint again than he is to finally reach expectations.

Pitching: Despite the pitcherís park, Florida finished with the NLís worst ERA last season (4.94). Their 1.58 WHIP was the worst in baseball. While the Dontrelle Willis trade might result in addition by subtraction, injuries to Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez really set back a once promising young rotation. So did Scott Olsenís regression. Still, Olsen has the stuff to be a successful major league pitcher, and Andrew Miller is a future ace, so there is some long-term potential here. Just not much in 2008.

Outlandish fantasy prediction: Scott Olsen puts it together and is a viable option even in shallow mixed leagues.

Jimmy Rollins on the RW Fantasy Sports Hour Saturday and Sunday

Rollins is going to be on at 12:40 ET and 7:40 ET Saturday and 1:40 ET Sunday.

Brad Evans of Yahoo! Sports, who said Davidson was his sleeper and Kansas would win it all, will be on at Noon ET Saturday, and NBA.com's Jon Loomer will be on at 12:20.

Feel free to suggest topics for any of them, particularly for Rollins. Since I have him on my Yahoo Friends and Family team, I'm going to talk to him about what's expected. More steals, particularly of third base and home plate, for example.

National League West Preview

1. Los Angeles Dodgers

Offense: Whether Joe Torre can mix and match the right playing time and lineup decisions remains to be seen, but what isnít up for debate is the fact the Dodgers are filled with young offensive talent. Third base is a hole with the injury to Andy LaRoche, but Rafael Furcal should bounce back with a big year, and James Loney and Matt Kemp provide big upside. A Juan Pierre trade would be for the best, and Andruw Jones showing up to camp out of shape after last yearís disaster isnít great news, but this offense looks much improved from last season.

Pitching: While the Dodgers lack a true ace, itís a starting rotation thatís very deep, especially with the way Hiroki Kuroda has looked this spring. Los Angeles should expect very little from Jason Schmidt, but with Brad Penny, Derek Lowe and Chad Billingsley, the Dodgers have four starters capable of posting sub-4 ERAs, even if Billingsley is another year or two away from reaching his potential. With Clayton Kershaw waiting in the wings, this staff could be dominant come the second half of the season. And with Takashi Saito, Jonathan Broxton, Scott Proctor and Jonathan Meloan, they have a loaded bullpen as well. The Dodgers have the talent to make a World Series run in 2008.

Outlandish fantasy prediction: Jonathan Broxton finishes with more saves than Takashi Saito.

2. Arizona Diamondbacks

Offense: Pythagoreanís nightmare, the Diamondbacks had the National Leagueís best record and reached the NLCS last season despite being outscored by 20 runs. They also finished with the worst batting average (.250) and OBP (.321) in the NL. In fact, not one single hitter posted even an .850 OPS, unless you count pitcher Micah Owings (1.033). The reason for their success despite the counterintuitive statistics? Thirty-two 1-run victories, which canít be counted on again. Still, itís a very young offense that should show improvement in 2008, maybe even by a wide margin, making them playoff contenders.

Pitching: With a top-3 of Brandon Webb, Dan Haren and Randy Johnson, Arizonaís front-end rotation can match any team in baseball. Of course, health will play a big role, as Johnson is once again coming off back surgery and is now 44 years old. And while Webb and Haren have been workhorses throughout their careers, they are two of the most overworked pitchers over the past few seasons, making them prime candidates to break down. The back-end of the rotation is pretty thin, although Max Scherzer may solve that post All-Star break. Despite no big names, Arizonaís bullpen should actually be an asset. Fun fact - Juan Cruz had 12.8K/9 IP last season.

Outlandish fantasy prediction: Brandon Lyon loses the closerís role by May.

3. San Diego Padres

Offense: The Padres finished 2007 with the second worst BA and OBP in the NL. Part of it can be blamed on a lackluster roster, but Petco Park played a major role as well; San Diego hit a paltry .235 with a .310 OBP at home, both MLB-worsts. The infield is set, with Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Kouzmanoff prime candidates for big seasons, but the outfield might be the worst in baseball. The Padresí lack of offense will once again be the teamís downfall.

Pitching: While the batters loath hitting in Petco Park, the confines are quite conducive to pitching; San Diego finished with a remarkable 3.02 ERA and 1.16 WHIP at home last season. Jake Peavy is one of the gameís two best pitchers, but heís also likely to require at least one DL-stint this year. Chris Young should be in the Cy Young mix if he can reach 200 innings for the first time in his career Ė he had a component ERA of 2.35 in 2007, making him the unluckiest pitcher in baseball. Greg Maddux is a solid No. 3, while Randy Wolf and Mark Prior give the back-end of the rotation some upside. The bullpen should be solid, but this might finally be the year when Trevor Hoffman falls off a cliff.

Outlandish fantasy prediction: Chris Young is a more productive fantasy player than Jake Peavy.

4. Colorado Rockies

Offense: Despite entering September sitting in fourth place in their own division, the Rockies represented the National League in the World Series in 2007. Still, a late-season hot streak doesnít transform an average franchise into a perennial title contender. Colorado does have plenty of young talent, and itís a ballclub clearly moving in the right direction, but itís awfully tough competing in a solid division and always having to score so many runs. The Rockies did improve their hitting on the road last season, which is a great sign for the future. Still, Matt Holliday, Troy Tulowitzki and Brad Hawpe are all likely to regress this season.

Pitching: Colorado plays terrific defense and boasts an underrated bullpen, but pitching in Coors Field can really take its toll. The more runs scored, the more pitches thrown, and the bullpen is often asked to enter games earlier than preferred. Franklin Morales and Ubaldo Jimenez have bright futures, but growing pains should be expected in 2008. Last seasonís 4.32 team ERA wasnít egregious all things considered, but the accompanying 1.9:1 K:BB ratio reveals they might have been a little lucky.

Outlandish fantasy prediction: Willy Taveras steals 60 bases.

5. San Francisco Giants

Offense: Only the Nationals scored fewer runs than the Giants last season, and no team had a worse slugging percentage (.387). And that was with the NL-leader in OPS in the heart of the lineup. With no Bonds around (weíll miss you Barry!), San Francisco isnít only fielding the worst lineup in baseball, but one that could also be historically bad. Their current cleanup hitter, Bengie Molina, posted a .298 OBP last year and boasts a career .411 slugging percentage. Brian Sabean also thought itíd be a good idea to give $60 million to an injury-prone 30-year-old with a career .805 OPS. Their projected regular starting infield had an average OPS of .660 last season.

Pitching: Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum are two future aces with very bright outlooks, giving the Giants an enviable top of the rotation for years to come. Or until Sabean deals one of them for A.J. Peirzynski or Shea Hillenbrand. Barry Zito, who quietly posted a 2.63 ERA and 0.98 WHIP over the final two months last year, could settle in as a decent No. 3. Still, heís looked brutal this spring and averages the slowest fastball in all of baseball these days. On the plus side, thereís just six years remaining on his $126 million deal. The chances of Noah Lowry repeating a sub-4 ERA with a 1:1 K:BB ratio are about as good as Sabean getting the better end of a trade Ė slim to none. The only reason the Giants get a fifth place finish is because there arenít more teams in the division.

Outlandish fantasy prediction: Rajai Davis steals 35 bases.

MLB Notes

Yunel Escobar will go down as one of the best value picks when looking back at the 2008 fantasy season. He may not offer huge power or speed potential, but heís a legitimate .300 hitter who will be batting second in a potent lineup. Also, heís slugging .692 this spring, so a jump in homers is possible. If you take J.J. Hardy or Khalil Greene ahead of him, youíre certifiably insane. No offense.

Is there a more overrated player than Vernon Wells? Heís had exactly two good seasons during his career and has a lifetime .776 OPS versus righties. Sure, last yearís struggles can be blamed on the bum shoulder, but his .405 slugging this spring makes you question whether heíll be back to 100 percent anytime soon.

Am I the only one who thinks Bobby Knight is doing a fantastic job as an analyst?

Justin Verlander should be treated like a top-5 fantasy pitcher. His K rate is climbing and his walk rate continues to decline; great signs for the 25-year-old. He has a top-3 offense supporting him and hasnít been overworked like C.C. Sabathia and Brandon Webb. In fact, Iíd much prefer him to Sabathia, who tossed nearly 260 innings last year if you count his postseason work; he had never reached 200 before then.

Edwin Encarnacion is ending up on the majority of my teams. Apparently, most arenít grouping him with Alex Gordon, Adrian Beltre, etc. like I am. Yes, he keeps failing to live up to expectations, but heís still just 25 years old and hit .337 over the final two months last year, including nine homers and 14 doubles. He also has 15-steal ability. Heís a candidate to really break out in 2008.

Brian Wilson has been one of the most consistently underrated players in fantasy drafts this spring. With a plus fastball and hard slider, the former Beach Boy has legitimate strikeout potential. He showed improved command over the second half last year and has a 9:1 K:BB ratio over 8.2 spring innings. And avoiding closers on bad teams is a common mistake; Mariano Rivera (the Yankees) had the fewest amount of save opportunities in baseball last year.

John Patterson was flat-out released? Iím guessing the Nationals arenít too optimistic his velocity will return anytime soon. Of course, he still probably throws harder than Barry Zito.

Although I loved the story and have followed Josh Hamiltonís career since the beginning, I largely undervalued him because of durability concerns and an inability to hit lefties. And Iím already regretting it. The guy is slugging .972 this spring! His OPS stands at a respectable 1.572. He still comes with plenty of risk, but his upside is clearly immense.

Chris Young is my dark horse pick to win the Cy Young this season. I know - he canít finish a season, always wears down and has never reached even 180 innings in a season. Still, this is someone who had a 1.83 ERA and 0.99 WHIP when July ended last year. He could work on being more efficient Ė heís ďledĒ the league in pitches per AB in each of the past two years Ė but none of his injuries have ever been arm related, and he worked with a physical therapist all winter in hopes of overcoming his back issues. Despite rarely reaching more than 90 mph with his heater, it looks a whole lot faster coming from his 6-10 frame. The abnormally low BABIPs also seem to be sustainable since heís largely a flyball pitcher, and Petco Park certainly helps. Heís a top-10 fantasy starter.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia is possibly headed to Triple-A, and J.R. Towles looks likely to be batting eighth this season Ė all the more reason to target catchers early. Joe Mauer and Brian McCann should be gone by the end of the third round.

Daniel Cabrera is my favorite last round pick right now. Everyone is officially fed up with him, so heíll likely be available then, and he does still possess one of the five best arms in baseball. Pitchers develop later than hitters, and remember heís still just 26. Sometimes the light goes on all at once with hurlers. His walk rate did drop from 6.3 BB/9 in 2006 to 4.8 BB/9 last year. Of course, both are wholly unacceptable, but it is ďbaby stepsĒ (ďWhat About BobĒ is criminally underrated). Odds are youíll end up dropping him come May, but these are the type of home run fliers you should be taking over boring options like Tom Glavine.

Avoid Have vs. Have-Not Matchups

The Celtics beat the Sonics by 29 points Wednesday night, 111 Ė 82. The starters all finished their nights very early, with the Sonicsí starters averaging 27 minutes and the Celticsí starters averaging only 22 minutes played in the game. Consequently, none of the players on either team lived up to their fantasy potential on the night. Similar stories played out in Denver and Dallas, where the Nuggets and Mavericks blew out the Grizzlies and Bobcats. Meanwhile, the Knicks and Heat played a hard-fought 91 Ė 88 game in which 10 players played 33 or more minutes and thus hit their fantasy numbers.

At this time of year the great teams are revving up for the post-season and the poor teams are preparing for the lottery, and the disparity between the caliber of play between the haves and the have-nots will only continue to get larger over the next month. I have suggested in the past that it is safer to start players from good teams than bad teams to avoid poor efforts, but upon further reflection that isnít necessarily true. Instead, you almost have to look at the schedule and start players from teams that will play other teams of similar quality. Start players from good teams against other good teams, and likewise start players from poor teams if they will be playing other poor teams. But, within reason, avoid players in matchups of great teams against poor teams, because it is too likely that these games could be over by the half.

MLB Notes

There isn't anyone getting consistently overdrafted more than Javier Vazquez. I've always liked Vazquez's stuff, dating back to his days as an Expo. However, the fact remains 2007 was the first season he finished with an ERA under 4.42 in four years. He's always a help in WHIP, and the strikeouts are legit, but Vazquez is an extreme flyball pitcher who plays in one of the most homer-friendly ballparks in baseball. Last year, his groundball/flyball ratio actually decreased from the season before, when he posted a 4.84 ERA. The glaring difference? His strand rate jumped from .640 in 2006 to .720 last season. I wouldn't count on it happening again.

I view Jeff Francis similarly, as prospective fantasy owners are focusing way too much on last year's 17 wins and too little on the underlying peripherals when overdrafting the left-hander. Coors Field is still a very undesirable place to pitch, and 4.22 ERAs are rarely accompanied by 1.38 WHIPs. Expect him to finish this year with something resembling his second half numbers from 2006. He's not a top-60 fantasy starter in my eyes.

I'd like to apologize to Rocco Baldelli, my personal whipping boy ever since he killed numerous fantasy teams of mine over the past couple of years. There's a joke somewhere to be made regarding the fact his career is over due to "fatigue," but I've made enough at his expense. The guy's life may be in jeopardy for crying out loud. Farewell, Rocco Baldelli.

I really don't understand why catchers aren't more heavily targeted. There is a clear-cut top-4, and then a precipitous drop off. If you are playing in a 2-C league, there are some pretty awful options if you wait too long, whereas even the 80th outfielder can produce decent enough stats. This is the one clear position that needs to be addressed early based on scarcity.

I always preach not to draft based on last year's stats, but if anyone's 2007 is under the radar, it's Mark Ellis'. Here's a second baseman who basically finished with a line of .275-20-10-80-80 while missing more than 10 games. I doubt he'll do it again, but as one of the game's best defensive players, he's pretty valuable to the A's. Aaron Hill also had a very effective and under the radar season last year.

Conor Jackson is one of my favorite mid-to-late round targets. Slated to bat third in the Diamondbacks' lineup, Jackson has a very favorable home park and quietly hit .308/.371/.555 after the All-Star break last season. He doesn't have light-tower power, but eight homers over his final 130 at-bats in 2006 suggest it's developing. His 50:53 K:BB ratio last season also portends a future .310-.320 type hitter.

Shane Victorino has to be one of the first 25-30 outfielders taken in drafts. While most speedsters contribute very little in the power department, Victorino can chip in 15 bombs, and his remarkable 90 percent success rate (37-for-41) on the basepaths last year means plenty more running should be in his future. The only real difference I can find between Carl Crawford and him is about 25 points in batting average.

If Michael Cuddyer finds himself batting between Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Delmon Young, he's going to end up as a serious bargain in fantasy leagues. Part of last year's drop in slugging can be blamed on injury, and yet he still finished with respectable numbers despite missing 20 games. He's also 11-for-11 on stolen base attempts over the last two seasons, so he could probably swipe 15 bags if he wanted to.

Billy Butler is an excellent end-game pick, especially those who play in Yahoo leagues, as he's first base eligible. Butler's power is still developing, and he certainly needs to improve against right-handed pitching, but he more than held his own as a 21-year-old in the majors last season and could really break out in 2008. He's a legitimate .300 hitter and eventually all of those doubles are going to turn into homers.

I've developed an unhealthy man-crush on Lastings Milledge. It's simply impossible for me to draft this guy too high. In fact, I recently picked him in the 12th round of one league. I guess I have a soft spot for head cases, but this is a pretty unique talent with both legitimate power and speed. One should largely ignore spring stats, but I've stupidly been fixated by his line of .389/.476/.583 with five steals in 36 meaningless at-bats.

Why I Think Kerry Wood Can Win the Closer Job

According to manager Lou Piniella, there's a three-way race for the closer job in Chicago between Carlos Marmol, Kerry Wood and Bobby Howry. At this point, Piniella hasn't tipped his hand too much, and most pundits believe that Marmol, who had an ungodly strikeout rate late year, has yet to be scored on this spring and who struck out the side today, will win the job. Marmol's been drafted earlier in every league I've been in, and Wood, despite pitching a scoreless inning today, is sporting a 5.20 ERA this spring.

But I think Wood is the savvier play at this point because he'll come cheaper, and as long as he holds up and pitches well, there are several reasons to think he'll win the job:

(1) It's a great comeback story, one that could inspire a team that has seen its two great pitching phenoms fall apart over the last several years (Mark Prior is trying to come back with the Padres sometime in April). To have Wood pitch well in a prominent role would salvage some of that lost promise.

(2) Wood, unlike Marmol, is a veteran, and so he's got seniority - first dibs on the more prominent role if it's close. (Bobby Howry actually has the most closing experience of the three, and is also a vet, but his early season struggles last year and his bad spring, in my opinion, make him a distant third).

(3) Wood touched 98 mph on the gun earlier this spring and is feeling healthy.

(4) Marmol's 2007 numbers were aided by a low hit rate and an especially low home run rate. Like Howry he gives up too many fly balls, and he walks too many batters.

(5) The only reason not to anoint Marmol the closer right now is to wait and see how Wood holds up and how his command is. Wood is really the only unknown in the equation - Howry is who he is, and Marmol is a fireballer with unhittable stuff - when he can locate it. Wood's health, command and ability to pitch on back to back days is unknown. Why else wait to name the closer unless they were waiting on Wood?

(6) Wood has the right demeanor to be a closer. He's a big, tough, competitive pitcher that comes after hitters.

(7) If Wood does get the job and gets hurt or fails, it's not the end of the world - they can just plug in Marmol at that point, i.e., the downside of trying Wood out is fairly minimal.

I'm not saying Wood will definitely be the guy - but I do think that if he pitches well over the next 10 days and shows he's completely healthy, the Cubs would be inclined to give him the first shot. And given where the two players are going in drafts, I'd rather invest in Wood over Marmol.

Brian Roberts to the Cubs?

I don't know much about this from the Orioles' end, but a possible reason this deal didn't get done a couple weeks ago is that Mark DeRosa was hospitalized with a heart condition.

You might think that was a reason to do the deal in that case, but it probably wouldn't play well for the guy undergoing heart surgery to lose his job, while in the hospital. (Trading for a backup in that case would be fine, but not someone to take DeRosa's job).

Now that DeRosa seems okay, they could do the deal, but Orioles' backup Freddie Bynum is dinged up. Our most recent update says that a deal before the season starts is unlikely for that reason, but I can't imagine Bynum's injury could really hold it up.

The Orioles have no chance in a stacked AL East this year where even Toronto and Tampa Bay are fielding far better teams, while the Cubs have a huge payroll and are committed to winning now. This is a natural fit, so I'd probably take even money that Roberts is a Cub before Opening Day. (In theory, that is - not opening up the RW sports book with this post). DeRosa's seen more as a supersub than a starter, and it probably comes down to what it would take to get Roberts. I'd imagine Eric Patterson and Sean Marshall would be fair. Maybe the O's would prefer Sean Gallagher. Just speculation here, but there's a good fit.

Of course, the Cubs might want to make a move for a center fielder, too, if Felix Pie (once his nuts are back to normal) can't convince them he's ready.

MLB Notes

I'm not sure what's more surprising, that some of the media think the recent claim that Derek Jeter is a poor fielding shortstop is untrue, or that these people find this theory new. Jeter has frequently finished worst in Major League Baseball in putouts from the position and has long been overrated thanks to timely big plays in October. Now that Carlos Guillen is off the position, Jeter might very well be the worst fielding shortstop in all of baseball.

If one could buy stock in a baseball team, I'd be all over the Tampa Bay Rays right now. The price would have to be seemingly low playing in that division, and I'm not sure I've ever seen a franchise loaded with this much pitching talent. Scott Kazmir and James Shields are elite talents right now. Matt Garza isn't far away, and David Price, Jacob McGee and Wade Davis are three of the top-10 pitching prospects in baseball. It doesn't end there, as Jeremy Hellickson and even Jeff Niemann have legitimate upside down the road as well. The organization has some pretty decent young hitters too.

In quite possibly the worst analysis I've ever read, The Dallas Morning News' Tim McMahon recently predicted Julius Jones will rush for 1,700 yards next season because he has averaged 155 rushing yards at Seattle's Qwest Field during, get this, two career games. He does realize Jones will be playing for the Seahawks and not against them, right?

Looking over the odds to win the World Series is always entertaining this time of year. Since going with the favorites is never fun (or fruitful), let's take a look at some of the longer shots who have a decent chance at going deep this season. I have no clue why the Cardinals (40/1) are favored more than the Reds (50/1), who at least have some upside in young arms. Then again, Vegas probably weighted the Dusty Baker factor heavily. I wouldn't mind throwing a couple bones on the Brewers (30/1), Braves (30/1) and/or the Dodgers (25/1).

If J.P. Riccardi could have persuaded the gullible Brian Sabean into the Alex Rios for Tim Lincecum (or Matt Cain) deal that was floated around during the offseason, I would have picked Toronto to win the AL East this season. This team has one of the best starting rotations in all of baseball even without the deal. Too bad that still leaves them as only the third best squad in its own division.

I had no idea John Henderson and I had so much in common. This is the same exact way I prepare for every RotoWire article.

Chad Billingsley might very well win a Cy Young award someday, but for this year, I think he's being drafted too highly. The stuff and the strikeout rate portend big things to come, but last year's 3.92 BB/9 IP suggests growing pains are likely in store for 2008. He's going to be a negative in WHIP, and that's going to reflect in his ERA in the short-term as well.

Johnny Cueto is one of my favorite end-game picks and has to be drafted in all but the shallowest of leagues. The debate whether Homer Bailey or Cueto will be the better long-term bet is far from decided, but short-term, Cueto is more prepared to contribute at the big league level. Of course, Dusty Baker has to agree, something pretty unlikely. Still, it's better to go with Cueto's upside than a boring veteran guaranteed playing time when you reach the later parts of your draft.

Anyone looking for a deep sleeper saves candidate should consider Taylor Tankersley. Most pundits consider Matt Lindstrom the likely replacement behind incumbent Kevin Gregg (who will probably be moved at the deadline), and there's nothing wrong with that, but Tankersley was the early favorite to close last season and was once the franchise's first round draft pick. The fact he's a lefty probably hurts his chances, but his numbers after the break last year (1.48 ERA, 12.3 K/9 IP) suggest he'll be a valuable middle reliever at worst.

Does Understanding Sabermetrics Help You Pitch Better?

Royals pitcher Brian Bannister is is trying to take advantage of knowing about things like BABIP, HR/9, etc.

If he succeeds, you can bet a lot more pitchers and coaches will follow suit.

Avoid Stars from Losing Teams

This is a critical time of year for both the NBA and your fantasy teams, because we have entered the home stretch. In the NBA, the good teams are ramping up their games for a playoffs push while the poor teams are limping to the finish line with one eye upon their future draft picks and summer moves. This translates to fantasy as well, because the impact players from good teams will tend to play at a high level consistently from here on in, whereas the impact players on poor teams may not play as much or as hard down the stretch as they succumb to injuries, poor team chemistry, or just the mental strain of finishing a grindingly long season when there is no chance for a postseason reward.

Because the fantasy trade deadline in most leagues is either here already or is coming up very soon, for many of you this is the last chance to make trades to set your team up best for your fantasy postseason run. Therefore, letís talk about a few of the impact players that are on poor teams that you may want to consider trading before their value fades down the stretch.

ēDwyane Wade, MIA: We have been preaching for months that he is a big late-season risk, as the Heat are completely out of the postseason race and he has so many injuries that it would be smart for the Heat to shut him down early. He has already missed a game on Friday with ďgeneral sorenessĒ, so it may be too late now to get value for him in a trade. But if you can, do it.

ēAl Jefferson, MIN: Jefferson is the young franchise player of the future for a Timberwolves team that is trying to convince its fan base that the future will be brighter than the presence, so he may not shut it down completely this year. On the other hand, this is the first time that Jefferson has had to endure the grind of being the focal point of opposing defenses for a full 82 games. Combine the mental and physical fatigue from that with the emotional fatigue of playing on a team that is challenging for the worst record in the NBA, and it would not be surprising to see Jefferson slow down over the last month of the year.

ēZach Randolph, NY: Randolph has had a couple of publicized/rumored run-ins with the Knicks this season and presumably is not the happiest camper there. With the Knicks again far out of the playoffs race, and the questions surrounding the future direction of the team, it would not be surprising if Randolph were to either miss some games or slow down his production at the end of the year.

RotoWire Fantasy Sports Hour: Muhsin Muhammad on Saturday and Sunday

Friday's taped show will air at noon and 7 pm ET Saturday and again at 4 PM on Sunday.

The guests will be:

Segment 1: Yahoo! Sports' Brad Evans
Segment 2: NBA.com's Jon Loomer
Segment 3: Carolina Panthers' Muhsin Muhammad

Feel free to post any questions you'd like me to ask him. I'll take them into consideration.

RotoWire's NL LABR Squad

PosPlayerPrice
CBrian McCann23
CBengie Molina13
1BConor Jackson18
2BKelly Johnson18
3BPedro Feliz11
SSStephen Drew16
CIJames Loney18
MICesar Izturis1
OFCorey Hart30
OFAustin Kearns18
OFWily Mo Pena9
OFRyan Church10
OFBrandon Jones2
UDallas McPherson1
PMatt Cain19
PCarlos Zambrano17
PRich Hill18
PScott Olsen7
PAnthony Reyes6
PClayton Kershaw1
PHong-Chih Kuo1
PTaylor Tankersely1
PVinnie Chulk1
PDuaner Sanchez1
RTony Gwynn Jr0
RMax Scherzer0
RMike Hampton0
RMark Mulder0
RClay Hensley0
RShawn Chacon0

In a 13-team, NL-only league, my strategy was to spread the wealth and avoid superstars. Trying to make sure actual starters fill up every offensive position is key and difficult to accomplish. I also wanted to spend extra money on hitting rather than draft a closer.

I targeted two decent catchers all along. Some advocate not worrying about them since the stats are less predictive due to the grueling nature of the position. And there are very few replacement players at all positions available on the waiver wire. However, I figure a fourth outfielder will be better than a backup catcher who starts once a week. I like Brian McCann to bounce back and as bad as Bengie Molina is in real life, the guy is slated to hit cleanup.

Conor Jackson, Kelly Johnson and Stephen Drew are three infielders I planned on acquiring. I figure itís best to go after young guys who are improving and could really take a leap opposed to veterans who have already plateaued. Jackson, especially, has crazy good plate discipline and might end up batting third in a hitterís park.

Pedro Feliz is one of those ugly plays. I mean, who wants Feliz on their team? Heís unsightly sabermetrically, but if he can go .250-20-80 hitting toward the bottom of a poor Giants team in the leagueís best pitcherís park, something like .260-24-90 isnít completely out of the question after the move to Philly. Plus, heís the gameís best defender at third, so he should have a safe spot in the lineup. He also came pretty cheap.

Cesar Izturis is obviously no good, but I was left scrambling to fill my MI spot, and heís the favorite to start and possibly even bat leadoff for the Cardinals. Iíd be thrilled with 500 at-bats from anyone with a pulse here. Although Izturis barely qualifies.

I overspent on Corey Hart. My team lacked speed, and I wanted him, but in hindsight, he went for the same price as Carlos Beltran, making my selection look like I overpaid. Hart is basically Grady Sizemore without the walks, and he could be a monster, but ultimately, thereís too much uncertainty for him to go for $30. That also hurt my goal of a balanced approach.

I wanted all three Nats outfielders but was unpleasantly surprised to see Austin Kearns take $18 of my budget and Lastings Milledge go for even more. Wily Mo Pena was more palatable at $9, and I like Ryan Church at $10, the concussion notwithstanding. Church has an .866 OPS versus righties during his career and is locked into a full-time job in a loaded Metsí lineup.

Brandon Jones and Dallas McPherson are stabs in the dark. I literally may be employing two empty slots there. Still, they are picks with upside if the opportunity comes. And both have weak competition in front of them. Maybe I can get 25 games out of Tony Gwynn Jr. while Mike Cameron is suspended early on.

Iím very high on Matt Cain this season but had absolutely no intention of drafting Carlos Zambrano, whose heavy workload and decreasing K rate are frightening. Still, a whopping 14 NL starters went for more than Zambranoís $17 price tag. Of course I wanted Tim Lincecum but would have had to go to $23 Ė and even then that was no sure thing.

Looking back, Pedro Martinez ($15) and Rickie Weeks ($22) look like two of the biggest bargains to me.

Scott Olsen and Anthony Reyes (gulp!) will be keys to my success. Chris Liss wouldnít have let me drive back with him if I didnít secure Rich Hill, and Iíll be rooting hard for Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer to get called up.

RotoWire's AL LABR Squad

Drafted my AL LABR Team on Saturday night. Here it is:

PosPlayerPrice
CJoe Mauer22
CDoug Mirabelli1
1BMorneau29
2BJose Lopez10
3BAlex Gordon21
SSCarlos Guillen30
CIMike Lamb9
MIJhonny Peralta16
OFJ.D. Drew11
OFTravis Buck14
OFJacque Jones8
OFBarry Bonds2
OFCraig Monroe1
UJason Giambi8
PFausto Carmona19
PA.J. Burnett19
PAndy Pettitte8
PNate Robertson7
PBobby Jenks21
PGio Gonzalez1
PGavin Floyd1
PGlen Perkins1
PJoey Devine1
RAndy Marte0
RBen Francisco0
RJeremy Reed0
RJacob McGee0
RJeff Larish0
RDan Meyer0

I'm happy with this team, but I made a couple mistakes.

What I did wrong

(1) I should have gone $11 on Pudge Rodriguez and skimped on Travis Buck. Mirabelli is a zero, and for $3 I could have gotten a part-time OF.

(2) I like Carlos Guillen a lot - especially because the two positions he plays (1B, SS), are extremely scarce in the AL this year, but I wish I had gone $30 on Jeter instead because he's more durable. If Guillen plays 150 games, this will be okay.

(3) I should have let Robertson go at 6 - I like him to bounce back given his ground ball tendencies and good K/BB numbers over his career, and the good lineup behind him, but it was a lot for a player coming off a down year.

(4) I went $8 on Giambi late, cause I had $16 left, and $9 was my max bid, and I wanted to deter bidding. Which worked, and it's a good value, in my opinion, but I was told later that people with money had their UTIL slots locked up, and I could have gotten him for less. That might have cost me Joey Gathright, who went for $6, and my team is slow and will need to acquire speed somewhere.

(5) The Giambi and Buck bids left me stuck with four $1 pitchers, though I think I got pretty good ones. Devine could close if Huston Streen gets hurt or is dealt, and Gio Gonzalez could be solid in that park if he wins the job. Floyd pitched better down the stretch last year and could take a leap forward - I tend to like struggling touted prospects as they mature.

(6) When Mauer was at 8, I said 22 and heard crickets. That might have been a mistake or it might not have. Vic Martinez went for 25, and Jorge Posada went for 18. And had I gone dollar for dollar, someone might have said 23. When you take a big leap, people can be paralyzed and not have time to decide before a player's sold. Of course, the incremental bidding might have stopped at 19. Still, happy with the value there.

(7) Same thing with Burnett. It was at 14, and I said "19" assuming he'd be low-20s. Crickets. I'm happy to have Burnett, but I wasn't necessarily targeting him. Injury history is the ONLY thing that worries me with him - otherwise, he's as good as any starter in the AL.

What I did right:

(1) I got top players at scarce positions like Mauer, Morneau, Guillen and Peralta.

(2) I have a lot of at-bats on my team with the only holes being C2, Bonds (who could be a steal) and Monroe (who could hit 12-15 HRs anyway).

(3) Jacque Jones (8) was a steal, and that he won't face lefties will only help his batting average.

(4) I got a top closer, which will allow me to compete in saves - if I just get anything else via the waiver wire or trade.

(5) Pettitte (8) was a steal.

(6) I did a decent job of $1 pitchers - Perkins, Gonzalez, Floyd and Devine are all upside plays. If they're terrible I can cut them, but all four have profit potential unlike an innings-eating mediocre vet who many people settled for with their $1 players.

(7) Francisco could see at-bats while I wait for Bonds. Marte is still young enough to pull a Brandon Phillips, i.e., forgotten top prospect makes good. Jeremy Reed is buried in Seattle, but he's also a former big-name prospect who's still young enough to emerge somewhere. Dan Meyer, too, if he can stay healthy. Larish and McGee are excellent prospects, though McGee's pretty young to make an impact this year.

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