Tue, Apr 7, 2009
Photo: Chris Creamer, Sportslogos.net
With the start of the fantasy baseball season upon us, let’s highlight a few players at each position who are primed for a breakout season in 2009.
C – Matt Wieters – Orioles
Surprise! After posting a .355/.454/.600 line with 27 HR between High A and AA last season, Wieters is the popular pick for breakout catcher of the year. Since his major-league debut isn’t likely to come until May, its difficult to rely on him as your number one catcher to start the season.
However, for all the hype surrounding the fifth overall pick in the 2007 draft, I believe Wieters is actually being underrated by the fantasy baseball community. The Yahoo! Sports Staff ranks him as the 10th best fantasy catcher heading into the 2009 season. I’m going to go out on a limb and say Wieters will finish the season as a top five fantasy catcher.
Wieters has the bat to do something at the catcher position that hasn’t been done since 2003: hit 30 HRs in a season. And don’t forget, he’s a switch hitter! I don’t say this often about prospects who have yet to prove themselves on the major league level, but in Wieters’ case, I’ll make an exception – this dude is for real!
With above-average power, in addition to great pitch-recognition skills and strike-zone awareness, consider Wieters my newest man crush. For those of you in keeper/dynasty leagues, listen up: get him now, before he’s a top 25 fantasy player by the 2011 season.
Honorable Mention: Jarrod Saltalamacchia
1B – Billy Butler – Royals
While Butler will likely DH for most of the season, he remains 1B eligible after making 33 starts there in 2008. Kansas City’s 2004 first round pick turns 23 in April, and is poised for a breakout season. For a young power hitter, Butler’s strikeout percentage (14.5%) is fairly low. Unfortunately, he hasn’t walked much either, coaxing just 60 free passes in 838 career plate appearances. Butler’s rookie campaign in 2007 saw him post a .331 BABIP, while his 2008 total was just .296, which explains the drop in BA from .292 to .275. I would expect a BA close to .285 for 2009.
As he continues to get older, his power numbers should increase. Expect him to push for 20 HR this season. Keep in mind he’s not quite 23 years old, so to expect David Ortiz-like numbers from Butler this early in his career would be incredibly optimistic. However, you can expect his 2009 stat totals to be worthy of a roster spot in all leagues, unlike his 2008 line.
Honorable Mention: Travis Ishikawa
2B – Ian Stewart – Rockies
While Stewart’s natural position is 3B, he figures to get some time in at 2B this season. In Yahoo! leagues, Stewart is already 2B eligible after playing 12 games there in 2008. He could get some time in the OF this year as well, which would increase his value even more.
Top-shelf power is Stewart’s calling card, which was made evident last year by his 29 HR between Triple-A and the big leagues. The former 1st round pick still needs to work on his pitch selection at the major league level, after racking up 94 strikeouts and just 69 hits in 309 career ABs.
A large part of Stewart’s value is wrapped up in his 2B eligibility. Beginning the season with him as your starting 3B wouldn’t be wise, as he’s likely to put up numbers that would rate him around the 15th best 3B.
However, he has the potential to hit 20 HR this season, something only five 2B did last year. Expect his big left-handed bat to force him into the lineup on a consistent basis, and prove himself to be a top 10 fantasy contributor at the 2B position.
Honorable Mention: Alexi Casilla & Mike Fontenot
3B – Alex Gordon – Royals
2008 saw Gordon show solid improvements on his 2007 rookie campaign. While his strikeout rate remained extremely high, he showed more of a willingness to take walks, something he will need to continue to do in 2009.
Gordon seems to be flying under the radar this spring. The Yahoo! Sports staff currently ranks him as the 15th best 3B, behind Michael Young, Adrian Beltre and Garrett Atkins, just to name a few. Don’t forget that Gordon, the #2 overall pick in the 2005 draft, was arguably the top prospect in 2007; and for good reason.
In 2007, Baseball America claimed Gordon, not teammate Billy Butler, possessed the best power in the Royals system. Gordon has tapped into that power potential in his first two seasons, smashing 31 HR and 71 doubles, while maintaining a 45.5 FB% (league average is in the mid-30s).
The former Nebraska Cornhusker also possesses decent speed and good instincts on the base paths, shown by his 23 steals in 29 attempts. After turning 25 in February, Gordon is on the brink of stardom. Expect continued improvements from Gordon in 2009, and perhaps an MVP trophy in the next few years. That’s right! You heard it here first!
Honorable Mention: Pablo Sandoval
SS – Jed Lowrie – Red Sox
Lowrie gets my vote for breakout SS of the year, not because of his skill set, but more so because of the lineup he bats in, and the lack of a better option. Julio Lugo’s expected return from knee surgery in a few weeks could force a platoon system at SS, but Lugo’s deteriorating skills on both offense and defense should allow Lowrie to see the most playing time.
Lowrie did show flashes of quality hitting at the big-league level in 2008, posting .284/.353/.490 with 12 doubles and 24 RBI in 102 August ABs. Overall, however, his stat line failed to impress.
While Lowrie should show some improvement in 2009, he’ll have to add some weight to his 6-0 180 pound frame to develop double-digit HR totals. He has decent speed, but only stole 15 bases in his 336-game minor league career.
If the 25-year-old fills out his frame, I see him eventually developing into an Edgar Renteria-type player, with less speed. For 2009, I’ll keep my expectations relatively low, since Lugo may cut into his playing time. However, those of you in deeper leagues may want to keep an eye on Lowrie.
Honorable Mention: Emmanuel Burriss (SS eligible in Yahoo leagues)
LF – Travis Snider – Blue Jays
Snider is the youngest player on this list, (21 years, 2 months on opening day) but that won’t stop him from becoming fantasy relevant in 2009. He showed the ability to hit major league pitching in September of last year, batting .301 in 73 ABs. However, his BABIP was an alarming .417 (league average is between .300 and .310).
While Snider is unlikely to repeat this, it is worth mentioning that he finished the 2007 season in High-A with a .407 BABIP, and posted a .435 BABIP during a short Triple-A stint in 2008. Snider’s bat seemingly has a knack for putting the ball where the defense isn’t, which should help make up for his lofty strikeout totals.
Toronto’s 2006 1st round pick possesses an incredibly powerful bat from the left side, and figures to be a mainstay in the middle of their lineup for a long time.
Expect 15-20 HR from Snider in his first full season as the Blue Jays’ starting left-fielder. If your league counts strikeouts as a hitter’s stat, you may want to shy away, otherwise, he will be a cheap source of decent power.
Honorable Mention: Fred Lewis & Daniel Murphy
CF – Cameron Maybin – Marlins
If you look up the word “stud” in the dictionary, there is a picture of Cameron Maybin next to it. Not really, but you get my point – the 2005 1st rounder is going to be crazy good. Keep in mind the Marlins thought enough of Maybin to make him the key to the Miguel Cabrera trade in December of 2007.
Maybin possesses all the tools necessary to be a perennial all-star in center-field for the next decade. He has a lightning quick bat, with plus power and plus-plus speed. His outfield arm has drawn comparisons to Andre Dawson.
As a 22-year-old to start the season, the only flaw in his game is his inability to recognize breaking pitches, which will lead to high strikeout totals. However, he has shown an improved willingness to take walks.
Expect Maybin to lead off for the Marlins this season, and be in the running for NL Rookie of the year. 15 HR and 30 steals is well within reach for Florida’s top prospect in 2009.
Honorable Mention: Adam Jones & Ryan Sweeney
RF – Nelson Cruz – Rangers
Cruz is the oldest player on this list, (28 years, 9 months on opening day) but if his 2008 season (44 HR 125 RBI .339 BA between Triple-A and Texas) is any indicator, he’s due for a breakout season in the majors.
Signed out of the Dominican by the Mets in 1998, Cruz has always been recognized for his well above-average raw power. He has dominated Double-A and Triple-A pitching since 2004, but other than 2007, has never gotten the chance to start everyday for a big-league team. He will get another chance in 2009 as the Rangers’ cleanup hitter.
While his past struggles to hit major league pitching are hard to ignore, so are his 12 HR in 147 ABs between last September and this spring. Hitting behind Ian Kinsler, Michael Young and Josh Hamilton should provide Cruz with a plethora of RBI opportunities. Don’t overlook his ability to swipe a few bags as well.
Although there is some risk involved with Cruz, 30 HR and 100 RBI is not out of the question for a guy who the Yahoo! Sports staff ranks as the 32nd best OF available in 2009. Get him while you still can!
Honorable Mention: Wladimir Balentien
SP – Yovani Gallardo – Brewers
Gallardo is one of the best young pitchers in all of baseball, but he doesn’t seem to get the same attention that guys like David Price, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer do. This could be because he missed most of 2008 after tearing his ACL after just three starts. He returned in late September, fanning 11 batters in as many innings, allowing only one run.
Milwaukee’s 2nd round pick in 2004 has very impressive stuff, and has shown the ability to keep the ball down in the zone while possessing good command with all of his pitches. Gallardo’s peripherals don’t indicate any real red flags, as he should strikeout around one batter per inning, and keep his BB/9 ratio in the 3.0 range. Unlike most young pitchers, Gallardo wont destroy your team’s WHIP, as he should stay under 1.30.
There’s not much not to like about the 23-year-old. Expect Gallardo to lead the Brewers rotation for years to come, and post a 2009 line worthy of a No. 2 or 3 starter in most standard sized fantasy leagues.
Honorable Mention: David Price & Ubaldo Jimenez
RP – Heath Bell – Padres
Of the first-time closers to start the 2009 season, (Bell, Chad Qualls, Joel Hanrahan, Matt Lindstrom, Frank Francisco, Brad Ziegler, Jason Motte and Brandon Morrow) Bell appears to be the best bet. Not necessarily because he’s better than the others mentioned, but because he has the best combination of mediocre skills and job security. Let’s break it down a bit further…
|Padres||H. Bell||C. Meredith|
|Diamondbacks||C. Qualls||J. Rauch|
|Nationals||J. Hanrahan||Rivera/ Ayala|
|Rangers||F. Francisco||C. Wilson|
|Athletics||B. Ziegler||J. Devine|
|Mariners||B. Morrow||J. Fields|
As you can see, Qualls, Francisco and Ziegler all have (somewhat) reliable options breathing down their necks. In the cases of Motte and Morrow, I believe both could put together respectable seasons, but for now, I’ll tag them both as too young and unreliable.
That leaves us with Bell, Hanrahan and Lindstrom. None of the three have much competition for the job right now, but Bell gets the nod due to his superior peripherals and home ballpark factors.
While I claim Bell is the safest bet on this list, its worth mentioning he posted a horrific line after the all-star break last season: 3 blown saves, 27 2/3IP 28H 29K/15BB 6.18ERA 1.55WHIP. Proceed with caution…
Honorable Mention: Jason Motte & Brandon Morrow
What do you guys think? Who’s on your 2009 All-Breakout Team? Feel free to leave a comment, or better yet, send me a fantasy baseball related question: firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll do my best to answer a few intriguing questions in my next post!