They're back

The Baltimore Sun

Snowflakes drifted by my window earlier this month, but spring has danced into my heart, people. This is the glorious time when all the seamheads of the world can shout that blessed phrase: pitchers and catchers have reported!

It's weird, but this might be my favorite time of the baseball season. So many questions to ponder. So many teams and players with a theoretical chance to shine.

That said, spring training is not an entirely helpful exercise for fantasy purposes. The swarms of reporters in Florida and Arizona don't have much to write about some days, so out come the tales of veterans who reported in the best shape of their lives and youngsters with as many tools as Mickey Mantle. There's always some obscure dude who hits .800 with four homers in the first two weeks and suddenly seems like a viable fantasy pick.

Yes, as fun as spring training is, it's an incubator for misleading information. You guys know the drill for combating this festering hyperbole. You try to block out most of the chatter when making draft lists. You focus on the two important questions spring training can help answer: Who's healthy and who's going to get a chance to play?

That's it. Everything else is static. So with those two strains of curiosity in mind, here are just a few of the many players and job situations I'll be watching the next six weeks.

Jay Bruce -- The Orioles are thrilled to have Adam Jones, but if the Cincinnati Reds had offered Bruce for Erik Bedard, they would have taken him with little hesitation. He's the consensus best prospect in baseball, a young outfielder who has made hard contact against older pitchers at every level. And the Reds seem to have cleared a spot for him by trading Josh Hamilton. Keep an eye on him in camp, however. With veteran-lover Dusty Baker at the helm, Bruce will have to earn his job. If he does, he might be worth an aggressive bid on draft day, especially in a keeper league. Statistician Bill James projects Bruce to be this year's Ryan Braun, a rookie who can step in and hit .300 with immense power and some speed. Other systems are more conservative but not much. Bruce won't come cheap in 2008, but he might come cheaper than he will again until about 2020.

Evan Longoria -- If Bruce is hitting prospect 1A, Longoria is probably 1B. He was the best college hitter in the 2006 draft and has torn through the Tampa Bay Rays' minor league system. Longoria is a power-hitting third baseman with a good eye who could probably hit .280 with 25-30 homers in a full season. Watch him in camp because the Rays have already made noise about starting him at Triple-A Durham. If they keep him, pay up.

Colby Rasmus -- And last in the triumvirate of great offensive prospects who might or might not start the year in the majors comes this St. Louis Cardinals center fielder. Rasmus is only 21 and hasn't played above Double-A. He might hit for a low average at first but has 20-homer, 20-steal potential in a full season. Word out of St. Louis is he might replace the traded Jim Edmonds. The Cardinals seem unlikely to contend, however, and might not want to waste his service time on a lost season.

Nationals outfield -- Washington general manager Jim Bowden has brought in bruising Wily Mo Pena, overconfident but gifted Lastings Milledge and troubled Elijah Dukes. There aren't enough at-bats for all of them, but they're fascinating. Dukes is the least reliable but could give you a nice power or speed shot for a $1 draft flyer. Pena should play plenty and hit 20-25 homers but will give you little else. Milledge is the guy I like. He could hit .280 with 15-20 homers and 20 steals and make Bowden look like a genius. Watch what manager Manny Acta says about who's going to play.

Joba Chamberlain -- A New York Post report says the New York Yankees will start their prized pitcher in the bullpen and move him to the rotation in the second half of the season. That plan is a sound one for New York but lessens Chamberlain's short-term fantasy value because he won't get as many wins or strikeouts. Watch him this spring, and if he really is headed for middle relief, let someone else overbid. He's a terrific pitcher and certainly a valuable player in keeper leagues.

Francisco Liriano -- It seems like ages ago, but Liriano was perhaps the best pitcher in baseball for a few months of his first full season in 2006. Tommy John elbow ligament reconstruction wiped out his 2007 season. Liriano says he's healthy again. I say treat him with caution because Tommy John guys often need a year to regain their command. If he's lights-out brilliant in spring training, I'm open to changing my mind.

Jeremy Bonderman -- He still has the tools that got him labeled a future Cy Young Award contender. But the Tigers shut him down because of elbow pain in September. That has to scare any fantasy owner. He says he feels better than ever, but all players say that. Put it this way: I'm planning to keep him for $1 in one league, but I wouldn't buy him for $15. If reports out of spring training are sketchy, I might not even keep him at $1.

Cubs closer -- There are some intriguing candidates for saves in Wrigleyville. You've got Carlos Marmol, who was overpowering in middle relief last year. You've got Bob Howry, another excellent setup guy. You've even got ex-wunderkind Kerry Wood. Marmol's going to be the man sooner or later, and fantasy owners have to hope for sooner. But look for news out of Arizona.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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