Fantasy: Leadoff Surprises

When the Red Sox signed Tony Womack this off-season, I wondered what exactly Theo Epstein was thinking. When the Red Sox found somebody who wanted to trade for Womack, I wondered why exactly the Cardinals would give up something for a crappy player they could have signed themselves. When I read that Womack might win the starting spot at second base and lead off for St. Louis, I just shook my head and laughed.

The competition to see who would start at second base for the Cardinals has been the most boring major battle for playing time in baseball this spring. The reason is that neither contestant, Bo Hart or Marlon Anderson, would have much fantasy value even if he did win the job.

Womack is worse than both Hart and Anderson, and he’s also past his prime. To top it off, he’s coming off Tommy John surgery and wasn’t even in the Cardinals organization two weeks ago. Suffice it to say that if you had come up to me two weeks ago and told me you were betting $100 on Womack becoming the starting second baseman for the Cardinals at 100,000-to-1 odds and that I should get in on it, I’d currently feel like Ben Stiller apparently does in Envy.

As improbable as it was that Womack would win a starting spot anywhere, that’s apparently what has happened in St. Louis. And as bad as Womack has been in real life, he had been at least a decent fantasy option up until last year. Even after hitting .226 last season, he still has a .270 career batting average and 309 career steals.

He’s obviously not going to be the same player who led the National League in steals three straight seasons in the late-1990s. However, if he can keep his starting spot all season, he could certainly hit .260 and steal 25 bases. If he feels rejuvenated in St. Louis or something like that, he might even be able to get up to a .280 average and 40 steals, but that would be pushing the believability of the whole scenario just a little bit too far.

As if the prospect of a 25-steal second baseman popping out of nowhere wasn’t enough, the current indication is that Womack would lead off as well. If he does, the players batting behind him will include, in some way, shape or form, Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds and Edgar Renteria.

What that means is that even if Womack can only manage a .300-.310 OBP, he could still score 100 runs. Furthermore, Womack played 73 games at shortstop and 21 games at second base last year, which means he should qualify at both positions to start the season in most leagues.

The short version of all of this is that a player who looked like he was headed to the minor leagues two weeks ago could now, without too much good fortune, provide a .270 average, 30 steals and 100 runs while filling either of the two middle infield spots. In other words, he could be a poor man’s Luis Castillo.

Meanwhile, while Womack was getting his foot in the door of the leadoff spot, Kenny Lofton was getting sent from the penthouse to the outhouse. Lofton was brought to New York to take Alfonso Soriano’s spot at the top of the order and Bernie Williams’ spot in centerfield.

Now, after hitting .157 this spring, he’s suddenly hitting ninth, and there’s a very real possibility that he may get relegated to the bench whenever Williams is able to return from his appendectomy. This affects a whole bunch of players, but let’s start with the player it affects most obviously.

Lofton originally looked like he had the potential to hit .280 with 30 steals and 100 runs if he played every day. Now, even if he keeps his spot in the lineup every day, he’ll still have good hitters behind him, but he’ll get significantly fewer plate appearances. That means significantly fewer chances to get on base, steal a base and score a run.

It’s entirely possible that Lofton will start hitting better once the season starts and get moved back to the top of the lineup. However, for the moment, it seems like he has very limited fantasy value.

With Lofton batting ninth, the new leadoff hitter is going to be Derek Jeter. Quite frankly, his fantasy value doesn’t change much. He’s still going to give you a good average and score a lot of runs and there’s still a question as to whether or not he’ll try to steal bases more often than he did last year.

The player who benefits the most from this news is Hideki Matsui, who will now be batting second. It’s true that Matsui will not come close to matching last year’s total of 106 RBI if he stays in the second spot all season. However, I already expected him to be unable to match last year’s total because I thought he’d be hitting eighth.

Now, he’ll make up for the lack of RBI by scoring at least 100 runs if he stays in the two-hole all season. However, it’s quite possible that Williams will bat second when he returns and Matsui will drop to seventh, where his runs would take a hit and his RBI total would increase some.

Finally, there may be repercussions for the Yankees pitchers with this move. If Lofton’s demotion to ninth in the lineup means that Joe Torre plans on using Williams in center field as soon as he’s healthy, that’s probably not a good thing for New York’s pitching staff.

While Lofton is not as good a defensive centerfielder as he used to be and may only be around average right now, he’s still a good bit better than Williams. Williams, in fact, may be the worst regular defensive center fielder in the major leagues.

Any time you weaken the defense, there’s a chance that it’s going to significantly hurt the pitching staff. I wouldn’t discount the value of any Yankees pitchers too much quite yet, but you should be aware that their ERAs and WHIPs might end up being a little bit higher than you expected.

Injuries getting worse: Based on recent events, if you hear about a player getting injured, you should just assume that the severity of the injury is a lot worse than originally reported. That’s what’s happened in several instances already this spring.

Earlier this spring, Trot Nixon was supposedly just being bothered by a “butt knot.” Now, he’ll be out until at least May with a mildly herniated disc. His absence means Gabe Kapler will likely see regular time, which means you’ll have to look elsewhere to replace Nixon on your fantasy team.

Red Sox teammate Nomar Garciaparra had Achilles tendon problems that weren’t supposed to be serious. Next thing you know, his foot was in a boot and now he’ll probably miss at least the first week of the season. All that means for your fantasy team is that he won’t be able to play at least 155 games in a third consecutive season. Pokey Reese and Mark Bellhorn will probably both get to play for the first week, and how they play could help determine who sees more time at second base the rest of the season.

Speaking of Achilles tendons, Mark Prior‘s was supposed to just sideline him for a start or two. However, now it looks like he’ll miss most of April and there have been rumors that he could be out until June. Don’t do anything stupid with him until you know more about when he’ll be back, but it would be a huge blow to teams that took Prior in the first round if he missed two months. Prior’s replacement in the rotation looks to be Sergio Mitre, but he may only get three starts if Prior can come back in late April.

Finally, the most recent case of an injury getting much more serious is Mark Ellis. Ellis was supposed to miss six to eight weeks with a separated shoulder, but it turns out that he’s going to be out for the season with a torn labrum. Esteban German will probably start the season as the second baseman, but Frank Menechino should take over once he’s recovered from his leg injury.

This probably doesn’t directly affect many fantasy teams, because I doubt many people had Ellis as their starting second baseman. He was a useful backup in some leagues, but he shouldn’t be that difficult to replace. However, that doesn’t mean his absence won’t have any fantasy effect.

Oakland obviously has some great starting pitchers, but there’s no doubt that those pitchers have been helped by their home park, their pitching coach and their defense. The park is still there, but the pitching coach is gone and the defense has changed completely up the middle.

Damian Miller replaces Ramon Hernandez behind the plate, Menechino and Bobby Crosby take over for Ellis and Miguel Tejada in the middle infield and Mark Kotsay will man center field instead of Chris Singleton and Eric Byrnes. Everybody already knew about most of those changes, but the loss of Ellis could be the most important.

By all indications, Ellis is one of the best defensive second baseman in baseball. According to David Pinto’s Probabalistic Model of Range, Ellis turned about 30 more balls in play into outs than you would have expected. I’m not a good enough statistician to know how many runs that converts into, but I’m sure it’s significant.

I’m not saying that Oakland’s pitchers are suddenly going to be average, but if they struggle a little more than they have in the past, you may find yourself wishing that Ellis was only out for six to eight weeks as originally reported.

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