Among the most intriguing players at the dawn of spring training are those who performed well below expectations last season. These guys created fiercely negative emotions for owners, but that may lead to buying opportunities this year.
You can't assume that every player who performed poorly last season will bounce back, however. So here's a look at the prospects for some of the disappointments of 2006:
Texas Rangers third baseman Hank Blalock wasn't nearly the player at 25 that he was at 22. Given his youth and cozy home park, some will predict a big rebound, but I've lost faith in him. His batting average on balls in play doesn't suggest he was unlucky, and he seemed unable to get the ball into the air, a bad sign for a supposed power hitter. He might have a better season, but any lingering dreams of superstardom are far-fetched.
The Oakland Athletics' Eric Chavez was another disappointing third baseman last year, with a .241 average and 22 homers. He's never quite met expectations, but he was unlucky on balls in play last year, so I expect him to get back to his more normal offensive levels with a .270 average and 27 to 29 homers.
Morgan Ensberg of the Houston Astros will show up on many sleeper lists because he fell from a 36-homer dream season in 2005 to a .235 average and 23 homers last year. Ensberg's ability to make contact didn't diminish, and his batting eye actually improved. So I agree that a nice rebound to a .270 average and 30 homers is in store for the third baseman.
I'm not as optimistic about St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Jim Edmonds. He's 36, and the nagging injuries produced by his all-out style drag him down more and more. He might hit 25 homers if healthy, but that .257 average and those 52 games missed were harbingers of what's to come.
Boston Red Sox center fielder Coco Crisp broke his finger early last season and never rebounded to his 2004-2005 levels. I like his chances this year because he's only 27, plays in a hitters' park and offers the broad range of skills that produce hidden fantasy value. Look for .290 with 15 homers, 25 steals and 100 runs scored, also known as a line very similar to former Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon's norms.
Cincinnati Reds outfielder Adam Dunn retained his 40-homer power but saw his average plummet for a second straight year, to .234. That's a problem. Look, Dunn swings and misses a lot. He always will. But if he's a little luckier, he could get back to a more tolerable .260 average, and I like the risk because he's one of the game's surest power sources.
Speaking of power sources, Tampa Bay Devil Rays second baseman Jorge Cantu seemed like a major one at a thin position after 2005. But he broke his foot and hit .249 with 14 homers last year. Given that he was injured and that he became a tad more patient at the plate, I expect a modest rebound to .260 with 20 homers.
I'll talk about pitchers who struggled in 2006 in subsequent weeks.
The question I get asked most this time of year is, "How can I find a good fantasy league in the area or online?" It's a real conundrum for passionate fans whose friends are more casual in their love of the game.
Here are a few suggestions.
If you're a new player and want good but not necessarily fierce competition, scour the ESPN, CBS SportsLine and Yahoo fantasy sites for a live draft league that fits your schedule. Most of these leagues will include a few players who stop paying attention after Memorial Day, but they'll be balanced by four or five enthusiastic fantasy-heads who offer trades and fight for the pennant all year. Better yet, both Yahoo and ESPN offer free leagues, so if you just want to sample the drafting and managing experience, they're low-risk propositions.
Most of the folks who ask me where to find a league are looking for something more serious. If you want to find a local auction league, check the message boards on some of the popular Orioles fan sites. Orioleshangout.com, for example, maintains a fantasy board, and there are usually folks looking to fill out leagues in late February and early March.
If you're a hard-core player and want to test your skills against like-minded opponents, I'd suggest searching the boards at BaseballHQ.com, Fantasybaseball.com and some of the other subscription sites. The people on those boards have already invested a lot of interest and energy in the game, so if you end up in a league with them, it's liable to be a rich experience.
Finally, I'll offer this. If readers are searching for a good local league and want to send me their names, I'll stockpile them over the next few weeks. If enough people show an interest, we can start our own auction league and you all can try to whop me.