In about four weeks, we'll be drafting.
So it's time to jump into the nitty-gritty of analyzing the talent at each position. I don't have space to do top 10 or 20 rankings for each, so during the next few weeks, I'll list guys I particularly like and don't like at each spot.
Let's hit it.
The pool of hitting talent will never be deep at this most demanding of positions, but it's not at an ebb either. Russell Martin is a rare five-category talent, and fellow twenty-somethings Joe Mauer, Brian McCann and Victor Martinez are all good enough hitters to help at any spot. I don't like to spend star-level money on catchers, however. They're too injury-prone (see Mauer last season) and lack the offensive upside of the best hitters at other positions.
No, I'd rather park my fantasy dollars in unglamorous but reliable hitters such as Kenji Johjima, Bengie Molina or A.J. Pierzynski. No one is pumped about acquiring these guys, but that's almost a good thing. Each seems likely to deliver a .280 average with about 15 homers and 60-80 RBIs, and each will generate less-fevered bidding than the aforementioned stars. Ramon Hernandez is also a good bet to return to that level of production (remember, he hit 23 homers in his first season at Camden Yards) at a price that's depressed by his poor 2007.
Among the younger catchers, the Chicago Cubs' Geovany Soto looks like the next top hitter. He has 20-homer power and a pretty good batting eye, so don't be afraid to lump him in the Molina class among National League backstops. I'm not as excited about the Houston Astros' J.R. Towles, who played above his head in a brief call-up last season. But he has a chance to be Russell Martin lite, because he's capable of stealing 10 bases, rare for the position.
I'm on the fence about the Texas Rangers' Jarrod Saltalamacchia. He'll become a top power hitter at the position, but I'm a little worried about his ability to make consistent contact this season.
Jorge Posada has to top the avoid list at catcher. Is he a remarkable player? Yes. Not many catchers have remained so productive into their late 30s. But his price will be inflated because of his lucky .338 average in 2007. He's likely to lose at least 50 points off it, and a 36-year-old catcher is always a health risk.
This is the land of established sluggers, so there aren't too many interesting buys yet to be discovered. One note of strategic interest: The position isn't quite as deep in quality players as many think, so if you can snatch up two good first basemen in an AL- or NL-only league, you'll put another owner at a significant disadvantage. That's always fun.
Among the big boppers, Prince Fielder is probably my favorite, because his ability to make contact is underestimated. He could hit .300 consistently.
Among the middle-tier guys, Ryan Garko is a bit underrated. He's average at best in real life, because he doesn't walk much. But a .280 average and 25 homers while hitting behind Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner will help you in fantasy.
In the NL, Conor Jackson could take a step forward to become a Mark Grace type - .300 average, 18 homers, 80-90 RBIs. Again, that's not great, but its quite serviceable if you have strong hitters up the middle.
I also like Joey Votto (he could hit .280 with 25 homers and 10 steals), but I worry that Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker will bench the rookie in favor of Scott Hatteberg every time he struggles.
There are actually plenty of stars I'm cautious about at first base, and that list starts right at the top, with Albert Pujols. Pujols turned down offseason elbow surgery because he didn't want to miss too much of 2008. But that means he'll be playing at less-than-optimal capacity. Nagging injuries have never kept him down, and I'm not saying you should avoid Pujols. I'm just saying that when you choose between him and other tip-top players, remember that injuries could grind him down.
I worry about Ryan Howard for a different reason. He's the best power hitter in baseball, but he swings and misses ... a lot. I suspect his .313 average from 2006 was a fluke and that he's more of a threat to hurt you with a .250 average than to clear .300 this season. Again, that doesn't make Howard a bad buy. It just means he has a weakness that other elite players don't.
James Loney of the Dodgers is a solid young player, who makes consistent contact and could hit .300 many times in his career. But his minor league numbers suggest that his .331 average and .538 slugging average in 2007 were a bit over his head.