Getting that baseball itch? Scratch down these names

The Baltimore Sun

It may seem strange given that the temperature has finally fallen to a seasonable crispness, but this is the time of year when I get excited about baseball.

Maybe it's that, with the Ravens eliminated, the NFL playoffs become a distant abstraction. Maybe it's that my fellow baseball obsessives start cranking out their projections for the 2007 season around now. Maybe I'm just wired this way.

The thing is, I'm not alone. One of my buddies felt the itch so strongly that he organized an impromptu baseball draft last weekend. Now this was basically a lark, something for which we were specifically ordered not to prepare. But it felt good to weigh the age-old questions - reliable power in David Ortiz or best guy at a scarce position in Chase Utley - on a random January afternoon.

Not that this means much, but the one thing that shocked me was Alex Rodriguez's availability at the 13th pick overall. I suspect we'll see Rodriguez slip in many drafts this year. But remember, we really don't know anything about the guy that we didn't know last year, when he often was picked first overall.

He's a divisive figure for New York Yankees fans and reporters who, at worst, gives you durability, a rare combination of power and speed and a perfectly acceptable average. At best, he might challenge Albert Pujols' place on the fantasy throne. That isn't the profile of a player who should be plummeting into the second round.

Anyway, here are a few names of guys I'm excited about based on early preparations.

Jeremy Bonderman: The Detroit Tigers starter is a perfect breakout candidate. He's a sturdy 24-year-old who's improved a little in almost every way over the past three years but hasn't broken the 4.00 ERA barrier. He's also a tad overshadowed by teammates Justin Verlander and Kenny Rogers. But this is the Detroit pitcher I want the most this year and a solid candidate for 15 to 18 wins and a 3.50 ERA with 200 strikeouts. I was happy to see that the Baseball Prospectus projection system agreed.

Matt Holliday: I always seem to be writing about him because he ends up on so many of my teams. But there's a reason. There are only a handful of guys who can reasonably be expected to hit above .300 with 30 or more homers, 100 or more runs and RBIs and 10-15 steals. This is one of them and yet, I bet he'll be available in the third round of plenty of mixed drafts. I wouldn't let him fall past the middle of the second.

Cole Hamels: The left-hander generated huge publicity when he joined the Philadelphia Phillies, but seemed to lose much of that acclaim after a few rough outings. Look at his underlying numbers, though, and you see a dominant young pitcher who strikes out more than a batter an inning and harnessed his control in the second half. His minor league record says he's brittle, but I could see him posting a brilliant season or two (like 15 to 18 wins with a sub-3.00 ERA and 250 strikeouts) before he breaks.

Rafael Furcal/Jimmy Rollins: Actually, these veterans don't excite me, and they probably don't excite you either, which is why they fall further than they should in so many drafts. Shortstops who hit for a solid average, score tons of runs, steal 35-40 bases and provide some pop are never in long supply. These two do it pretty reliably and should not be going three or four rounds later than the glitzier Jose Reyes.

Felix Hernandez: I was one of many who thought "King Felix" would reign from the beginning last year. But his full introduction to the American League proved bumpier than expected with a 4.92 first-half ERA dragging down his stat line. But there's still a lot to like. Hernandez misses bats and kept his control even during his worst stretches last year. He was unlucky on balls in play, and I wouldn't be shocked to see a full run come off his ERA this year. I'd take him over this year's phenom, Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Tim Lincecum: The little right-hander probably won't start 2007 in the big leagues, but he's a fun player to stow on your reserve list. Lincecum was thought to have the best stuff of any 2006 draft pick, and he struck out 48 in 27 2/3 minor league innings. That sort of dominance says he may be able to fool major league hitters sooner rather than later.

Ben Sheets: He seems to be getting less healthy as he reaches his late 20s, and his 3.82 ERA in 106 innings last year doesn't scream superstar. But Sheets is a great pitcher. He strikes out a batter an inning while maintaining the walk rate of a vintage Greg Maddux. And I think he'll have at least one huge year in his career, something like 20 wins with a 2.50 ERA, 220 strikeouts and a 1.000 WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched). There's no reason it couldn't be in 2007 so keep him in mind as a high-risk, high-reward candidate.

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