Hard as it might be to believe with the snow and ice accumulating outside our windows, pitchers and catchers will begin their spring toils this week in Florida and Arizona.
And that means it's no longer freakish to begin preparing for your fantasy baseball drafts at the end of next month. Spring training is a time of great intrigue for fantasy obsessives. Most of us already know how we'll value the top half of the player pool, but questions surround the bottom half. Will rookie X win that starting job he deserves? How will pitcher Y look coming off arm surgery? Who the heck will pitch for Washington?
If you play in a tough league, the answers to those questions will become very important in about six weeks. So here are a few plots I'll be following as ballplayers stretch in Fort Lauderdale and iron out those double-play drills in Scottsdale.
How good is Daisuke Matsuzaka?
I imagine Matsuzaka will be overvalued in most drafts. He comes to this country with an impeccable reputation bolstered by surreal feats, such as his 250-pitch outing in Japan's national high school tournament. But Fenway Park is a tough place to pitch, so even if Matsuzaka is very good, a 4.00 ERA wouldn't be shocking. I'll set that warning aside for now, however, because I just want to see the guy pitch. I want to watch spring training footage to see how baffled major leaguers appear standing in against him. That might not tell us much about how good he'll be over the course of the season. In fact, please don't overreact if he strikes out the first six guys he faces or something crazy. But wouldn't that be cool? What's spring good for if not for some tall tales that you can use to mess with your fellow owners?
Matsuzaka won't be the only intriguing pitching plot in Fort Myers. Jonathan Papelbon will try to make the Red Sox's rotation, and the spring might begin to tell us whether his shoulder is up to the task.
Will Alex Gordon make the Royals?
I wrote about Gordon in my prospect column, and I think he's the best player who might not make an Opening Day roster. I'd have no qualms about including him a top-10 ranking of fantasy third basemen, so let's hope he doesn't go 0-for-33 in a meaningless spring training sample and get himself sent to Triple-A. If he sticks, expect a .280 average with 25 homers, 15 steals and 80-90 runs scored and RBIs. We can always use more lines like that, no?
Also keep an eye on Yankees starter Philip Hughes; Dodgers first baseman James Loney, third baseman Andy LaRoche and outfielder Matt Kemp; Blue Jays outfielder Adam Lind; Royals outfielder Billy Butler; Brewers third baseman Ryan Braun; and Cubs outfielder Felix Pie and second baseman Eric Patterson. They would all be valuable fantasy targets, but none is assured of a job. Same goes for B.J. Upton, if he can ever play a position well enough so that the Devil Rays leave him there.
Is Eric Gagne ready to be a viable closer again?
Texas took a smart gamble on Gagne, who was once as dominant as any reliever has ever been. But most of the medical experts quoted on his situation say he's likely to be either great or awful this year as he tries to rebound from elbow and back surgeries. Maybe spring training will tell us which, assuming the Rangers let him pitch. The Dodgers didn't extend that courtesy last season. Either way, if you draft Gagne, try to back him up with Akinori Otsuka, who proved last season he could do the job.
We'll also want to watch closer situations for the Indians, Reds, Red Sox, Pirates, Cubs, Royals, Devil Rays and Marlins. Because even if the options seem poor in most cases, saves must be chased in the fantasy game. I'll devote a whole column to the closer picture later in the spring.
Will Bartolo Colon, John Patterson, Rich Harden and Ben Sheets rejoin the ranks of elite starters?
I might as well add the phrase "if he stays healthy" any time I opine on a pitcher. But these four could be top-20 starters if not for repeated injury woes. My early guesses are that Colon's partially torn rotator cuff will keep him from previous heights and Patterson and Harden will miss at least 10 starts each. I feel an inexplicable optimism that Sheets will put together health and skill to make a Cy Young Award run this year. Spring training should give us a bit of intelligence on these and many similar cases.
Other high-value, high-fragility cases to keep an eye on include Jake Peavy, Justin Verlander, Cole Hamels and Scott Kazmir.
Which guys who aren't star rookies but aren't established will earn jobs?
I'm looking at Brewers outfielder Corey Hart; Astros outfielders Luke Scott and Chris Burke; Padres third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff; and Royals first baseman Ryan Shealy. These guys all will be at least 25 on Opening Day, so they don't project to be superstars. But they've all hit consistently in the minor leagues and will be valuable fantasy contributors if they start. I especially like Hart because he combines power and speed.