Fantasy Rankings: On the Bubble

After ranking and talking about more than 250 players for this fantasy season, I’m still not done. Here are some players who didn’t quite make my pre-season position rankings, but are still worth discussing and possibly drafting.

Catcher

Ramon Castro, Marlins: Castro has only received 370 at-bats in the majors over the last five seasons, and the only time he was productive was last year, when he hit .283 with five homers in 53 at-bats. However, Castro generally had excellent numbers during his time in the minor leagues and although he’s hitting just .233 this spring, he does have four homers in 30 at-bats.

Castro has legitimate power and he shouldn’t kill your batting average. In fact, he has the potential to easily be as good as several of the players I put in my top 20 catcher rankings. However, Castro is facing sexual-assault charges and will go to trial on May 3. If his legal problems adversely affect his playing time, he obviously won’t be able to help your team.

Johnny Estrada, Braves: After hitting .328 with 10 homers in 106 games at Class AAA last year, Estrada will try to prove that Atlanta’s decision to send Kevin Millwood to the Phillies wasn’t just a salary dump. Estrada’s 27 years old and last season was by far his best in the minors, but if he can become an average starting catcher, he could be more valuable than the overrated Millwood.

He’s not going to be a very good hitter this year, and maybe not ever, but just the fact that he’s a catcher with a steady job makes him intriguing. If he can hit .275 with 15 home runs, which is probably the very upper limit of his potential for this season, he could be a nice backup or even a starter in deeper leagues.

First Base

Hee Seop Choi, Marlins: Yes, Choi finished last season hitting just .218 with eight home runs in 80 games. However, he was hitting .246 with seven homers in 48 games before the June 7 contest in which he collided with Kerry Wood and sustained a concussion. Also, Choi was excellent in the minors from 1999-2002, hitting .286 with 82 homers in 423 games at four different levels.

The only time he struggled was when he reached Class AAA at age 22 in 2001 and hit .229 with 13 homers in 77 games. He returned the following year and improved to .287 with 26 homers in 135 games. Choi has the ability to easily hit .250 with 20 home runs this season, the only question is how much the Marlins will let him play.

Even if he starts almost every game, he probably won’t be good enough to be a starter at first base except in the deepest leagues. However, he could be a solid corner infielder or a top-notch backup.

Carlos Pena, Tigers: Oakland got Pena from the Rangers to replace Jason Giambi, but he struggled to start the 2002 season. Oakland then made a three-way deal that sent Pena to Detroit, Jeff Weaver to the Yankees and Ted Lilly to the A’s, and Pena’s the only one of the three who hasn’t been traded again.

Since joining the Tigers, Pena has hit .250 with 30 home runs in 188 games. That’s still below expectations, but is much better than the .218 average he provided in 40 games with Oakland. Expectations were so high for Pena because he hit well at every stop in his minor-league career, posting a .280 average, 124 doubles and 85 home runs with solid plate discipline in 482 games.

Pena should be able to hit .250 with 20 home runs in his sleep, and he could be much better if he begins to tap into his potential.

Second Base

Mark Bellhorn, Red Sox: After hitting .258 with 27 home runs for the Cubs in 2002, Bellhorn slumped to a .221 average and just two homers in 99 games for Chicago and Colorado last year. Now in Boston, Bellhorn will form some type of platoon with Pokey Reese at second base and fill in for Bill Mueller at third base when necessary.

In fact, the Red Sox hope they have another Mueller situation on their hands. Boston acquired Mueller after he struggled through an injury-plagued 2002 season because he had always provided a solid OBP and he rewarded the Red Sox with easily the best season of his career. Bellhorn struggled with injuries last year, but still managed a .353 OBP.

Bellhorn should get at least 300 at-bats between second and third base. If he shows that he can perform more like he did in 2002, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him top 400 at-bats and 20 home runs. Of course, Bellhorn also could end up being this season’s Jeremy Giambi. He’s hitting .160 with just four singles this spring, and the Red Sox won’t stick with him if he’s not producing just because he was supposed to be a great find.

Aaron Miles, Rockies: Miles is not a very exciting player. He’s 27 years old and he’s played just eight games in the majors. His minor-league numbers (a .289 average with 43 home runs and 133 steals in 849 games over nine seasons) are decent, but nothing to drool over. So, why is he a sleeper?

Because he’s a member of the Rockies and the only competition he has for getting regular playing time in Coors Field at second base is Damian Jackson. The only good thing you can say about Jackson is that he’s fast. In his 621-game major-league career, he has 117 steals and just 142 extra-base hits. What I’m trying to say is that Jackson isn’t much competition.

Miles isn’t going to put up monstrous numbers even playing in Colorado, but he could do well enough that it would make sense for you to start him when the Rockies are at home and start somebody with a little more natural ability when the Rockies are on the road.

Third Base

Eric Munson, Tigers: After getting very little playing time in the majors from 2000-2002, Munson finally got a shot to play third base regularly last year. He was hitting .240 with 18 home runs in 99 games when a thumb injury ended his season on August 11.

Munson will probably not hit higher than .250 this season, and maybe not any season, but he should hit at least 20 home runs if he gets at least 400 at-bats. If he improves a little, he could even hit as many as 25 homers. Unfortunately, he’s probably only worth starting as a corner infielder in deep leagues, because home runs are the only thing he provides.

Wes Helms, Brewers: You might not have realized it, but Helms was just about an average offensive player last year, hitting .261 with a .330 OBP and .450 SLG. He was 27 last year, so it’s possible that he was having a career season. However, it’s also possible that he was simply blossoming in his first shot at playing nearly every day.

He just got a two-year contract and should play at least 130 games at third base again this year, meaning he should be good for at least a .250 average and 20 home runs. If he can build upon his first full season, he could actually turn himself into a useful fantasy player.

Shortstop

Chris Woodward, Blue Jays: For some reason, the Blue Jays don’t seem to really like Woodward despite the fact that he’s hit .268 with 20 home runs, 97 runs and 90 RBIs in 661 at-bats the last two seasons. He was much better in his 90-game stint two years ago than in his 104-game stint last year, but he’s definitely provided two partial seasons of decent offense for a shortstop.

Based on those numbers and the fact that he’s in his prime at 27 years old, Woodward might be able to hit .265-.270 with 15 home runs, 75 runs and 75 RBIs if Toronto lets him play a full season and get 450-500 at-bats. If he could do that, he’d essentially be the Canadian version of Rich Aurilia.

Royce Clayton, Rockies: Clayton was terrible last year. Of the 21 shortstops who qualified for the batting title, only Ramon Santiago and Cesar Izturis were worse hitters, and at least they’re both very young. Clayton is now 34 years old, and I can’t understand why he has a starting job. However, not only does he have a job, that job is in Colorado.

As bad as he was last year, Clayton did hit 11 home runs and steal five bases. Now he’s playing in Coors Field, which accents power, and he’s playing for Clint Hurdle, who’s talking about stealing more bases this season. If Clayton can get his batting average back up to around .250, hit 15 home runs and steal 10 bases, he could be a player worth having around, at least for when the Rockies are at home.

Outfield

Pat Burrell, Phillies: There’s no denying that Burrell was awful last year. After just coming into his own at age 25, his performance fell off a cliff at age 26. However, I expect him to bounce back just fine this season.

I don’t think he’ll make it all the way back to his 2002 level, but he should be able to hit .260-.265 with around 30 home runs. Larry Bowa has said Burrell will stay in the cleanup spot, so he should also be able to knock in at least 100 runs.

The only reason Burrell didn’t make my list of the top 50 fantasy outfielders is because of the chance that he might only bounce back slightly from last season. If Burrell only hits .240 with 25 home runs and 90 RBIs, which would be a big improvement on last season, he wouldn’t be one of the top 50 outfielders.

Jermaine Dye, A’s: Dye obviously hasn’t been the same player since breaking his leg in the 2001 playoffs. He hit .252 with 24 homers and 86 RBIs in 2002 and then managed just a .172 average and four homers in 65 games last year. Now he’s 30 years old, and it’s pretty unlikely that he’ll return to the level he played at from 1999-2001.

However, Dye worked hard this off-season to get back in shape and he seems to be healthy this spring. He’s also expected to bat fourth in Oakland’s lineup. If he can just stay healthy enough to play 120 games, he should provide at least a .250 average, 20 home runs and 80 RBIs.

Those aren’t good numbers, but they aren’t bad as a minimum for somebody coming off a season as bad as Dye just had. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see him hit .275 with 25 home runs and 100 RBIs, which would probably make him about as valuable as Hideki Matsui.

Frank Catalanotto, Blue Jays: He doesn’t have as much power as you’d like to get from an outfielder and he doesn’t really steal bases either, but Catalanotto does have a .297 career batting average. He doesn’t turn 30 until the end of April and he’ll bat second, at least against righties, in the powerful Toronto lineup, so he should score some runs too.

Catalanotto isn’t somebody you want to rely on as a starter unless you’re in a deep league, but he’s a good guy to have around as a backup and to occassionally plug into your lineup if you need to boost your average and/or runs a little.

Juan Encarnacion, Dodgers: Encarnacion is not the type of player new GM Paul DePodesta likes at all. He has decent power and some speed on the basepaths, but he has very little ability to get on base consistently and his defense is probably overrated because of his strong throwing arm. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get traded, but as long as he’s in Los Angeles, he’ll either play left field or — if Shawn Green eventually does move to first base — right field.

Encarnacion is getting overlooked somewhat because he’ll be batting sixth in a weak lineup at a park that hurts hitters, but his average season the last two years has been pretty good — .270 average, 21.5 home runs, 20 steals, 78.5 runs and 89.5 RBIs. Keep in mind that most of those numbers were put up while he was batting fifth or sixth in a lineup that wasn’t all that strong, in a park that hurt hitters.

At the very least, Encarnacion should be able to hit .260 with 15 home runs, 15 steals, 70 runs and 80 RBIs. That makes him a nice backup, especially since he has the potential to do better than that in each category.

J.D. Drew, Braves: Drew has teased fantasy players many times (most notably in 2001), but he’s never been able to stay healthy enough to really be an impact player. He’s now 28 years old, and he’s still never even had 425 at-bats in a season. So, despite all of his talent, it would be silly to go and expect Drew to suddenly play 150 games and get 550 at-bats. It’s just not likely to happen.

However, even if he only gets 400-425 at-bats, he could still hit .280 with 20 home runs, a handful of steals, 75 runs and 80 RBIs. As far as talented outfielders who are big risks but could have big rewards go, Drew is just a step below Austin Kearns. In fact, if Drew and Kearns both play 120 games, they might put up nearly identical numbers.

Starting Pitcher

Kurt Ainsworth, Orioles: Ainsworth was having a solid rookie season for the Giants when a shoulder injury put him out of action after just 66 innings pitched. He was able to return to pitch 2.1 innings for Baltimore at the end of the season and there don’t seem to be any concerns about his health this spring.

If he pitches like he did at the beginning of last season, he should provide a decent ERA and help your strikeout total. However, his WHIP will likely be on the high side and he’ll need to average better than six innings per start to have a shot at winning 12-15 games.

Cliff Lee, Indians: Another player whose rookie season was plagued by injuries, Lee managed to post a 3.61 ERA in 52.1 innings in the majors after pitching 79.2 innings at three minor-league stops (with a 2.82 ERA). Now 25 years old, Lee is a key part of Cleveland’s youth movement and will be counted on to stay in the rotation all season.

Lee strikes out a lot of hitters, but control was frequently a problem in the minor leagues and it was a problem in the majors last year as well, as he walked 20 batters in those 52.1 innings. The control problems, the fact that he hasn’t proven he’s durable enough to start for a full season and the weakness of Cleveland’s offense limits Lee’s value, but he has the talent to put everything together and have a breakout year.

Jeremy Affeldt, Royals: Affeldt showed flashes of brilliance last year, but blister problems forced him out of the rotation and limited him to 126 innings. There is good news regarding Affeldt this season though. First, part of a finger nail was removed in an effort to stop the blisters. If it works, he should be able to stay in the rotation all season. Second, Kansas City moved the fences back this season, which should do nothing but help his ERA.

As talented as Lee is, Affeldt is the most exciting young lefty in that division not named Johan. He’s a big question mark, but he could put on quite a show if he can make 30 starts.

Jeff Suppan, Cardinals: Suppan does have a 4.90 career ERA and he was awful after getting traded to the Red Sox last year. However, he was able to post a 3.57 ERA in 141 innings for the Pirates last year while winning 10 games in 21 starts. Now he’s back in the National League, and he’s pitching for a team with a good offense this time.

Suppan probably isn’t going to match what he did for Pittsburgh last year and even if he did, he still wouldn’t help you in strikeouts. However, if he can provide 200 innings with a 4.00 ERA, he could easily win 15 games. He’s still just 29 years old and considering his success in the NL last year, he’s not a bad gamble to take.

John Thomson, Braves: People joke about the Braves bringing Thomson in to replace Greg Maddux, but it’s really not that silly. Both pitchers were slightly above average last year, but Maddux pitched in an NL pitcher’s park while Thomson pitched in an AL hitter’s park. The result is that Maddux had a 3.96 ERA and Thomson had a 4.85 ERA

If Thomson can just pitch as well as he did last year, he should have an ERA right around 4.00 and win at least 12 games. If Leo Mazzone can use his magic on Thomson as he has for so many other pitchers, Thomson could have a very nice career year.

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