March 23 , 2010
Ted Denslow, deceased former owner of the Milwaukee Beers baseketball club, fought to prevent unionization, free agency, and corporate tie-ins from contaminating his league. In the process he allowed his players to develop the brotherhood and camaraderie that can only come through shared experiences together on the field of battle, as both friends and foes.
Every March I am blessed to participate in a fantasy draft with a mixture of childhood friends, ex-college team/roommates, and a couple of the owner’s girlfriends (they must really love us). This is the league’s 6th season and my 5th year participating. In the last five years, the league has evolved considerably with some owners retiring, others taking their places, and all of our lives evolving with the league. When the league was in its infancy, some of the current owners were underclassmen in high school while others were approaching undergraduate graduation day. A lot has changed since those early days of our league, and most of the owners now are college graduates and embarking on new adventures both professionally and personally. One owner is married. Another has left the country to attend something called the Royal Veterinary Academy, and our newest member recently began a post-baccalaureate pre-med program in St Louis where she lives with one of the league’s original owners. The champions from the past four seasons now reside in London, Washington D.C., Iowa, and Chicago. The Iowan was born and raised in Honolulu, and I suspect he will return there upon his graduation in May. Who wouldn’t want to return to tropical paradise?
I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have fantasy baseball in my life. When I tried explaining to my fellow student dentists how I could take an afternoon out of a Saturday to drop all of my studies (we had a big physiology test Monday) to play fake sports, I began with how much time and effort goes into preparing for the draft and how important it was that I am comfortable with the draft kit. We use ESPN, and the folks there seem to alter it annually. My classmates naturally questioned what I win if my team were to come in first. I enthusiastically replied “Albert Pujols in 2011!” They were expecting some monetary sum. I began telling them that none of the owners actually have any money, which was my default response in yesteryear. That is no longer even the case. I had forgotten that some of the owners do indeed have positive income. This dialogue reminded me of what I love the absolute most about fantasy: the opportunity to continue to share something I love with many of the people I love with who I otherwise might lose touch due to jobs, families, or distance. While I may lose track of some of the other league owners from October through February, I have March through September to catch up with them and reinforce the friendships that were built away from the laptop, smartphone, and television.
Don’t get me wrong, I truly do prepare for the draft. I currently own Ron Shandler’s Baseball Forecaster for this season as well as the two prior to this one and Rotoworld’s guide. I have a very firm grasp on their discrepancies and reasoning behind their projections. I find Shandler to be very convincing, but I can understand why others might prefer Rotoworld’s style. I read Hardball Times, Baseball America, and espn.com every day. The point is that I care if I win. A lot. I never have before, but have also never finished outside the top 4. I check my team a minimum of 15 times daily during the season, but I tend to behave compulsively. Five would probably be sufficient. Either way, I believe that some day I will win. Maybe it will happen this fall.
Win or lose. First or last. It really matters little in predicting what I will be doing next March. Now that our 2010 draft is finalized and the season is set to begin, I have a six-month roller coaster to ride into October. When I exit the coaster, I will bid farewell to the Denslow Cup 2010 and the other owners for the winter. I will then begin preparing for the upcoming draft, like I have done for the last five years and intend to do for the next fifty. I can’t wait to pick the conversation back up. My bet is it will begin right where it left off five months prior.
You know, I think to some extent that’s what Mr. Denslow wanted out of his league too.
Alright. Now let’s discuss some real baseball. One of the biggest question marks of the spring – and it seems like there are a few more than usual this March – has been hovering around the campus of the College of Southern Nevada where 17-year old Bryce Harper is leading the school in every meaningful offensive statistic while handing the bulk of the team’s backstop duties and spending a handful innings in the outfield and at third. It took the phenom just two weeks to move himself into the JUCO’s cleanup role on offense. With a line of .413/.505/.875 (as of March 13th) to go along with his six stolen bases and sub-2.00 pop-to-pop time, Harper is in the process of justifying the media hype that began when he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and was touted as little less than a messianic figure soon to be a household name. While most players his age are fighting to make their varsity high school teams, Bryce Harper is working to solidify his status as the consensus number one prospect headed into this June’s MLB amateur draft. Is he doing that?
This is not a question anyone would even have to answer had Harper not dropped out of Las Vegas High School in hopes of beginning his professional career a year early. MLB demands that dropouts sit out a year before they can be drafted. Harper’s route to the draft is unprecedented but indeed justified given his virtual lock on a team’s top pick. The question is whether or not that pick will be the Nationals’ first overall pick. Imagine this: Stephen Strasburg tossing to Bryce Harper in 4 years. Some scouts have voiced concern over Harper’s unorthodox hitting mechanics, which likely leads to his rather large collection of strikeouts. He currently has 19 through 80 AB’s. Scouts may use Harper’s 16 walks to suggest that he has some understanding of the strike zone as well as his justifiable immaturity relative to the 19, 20, and 21-year old pitchers he is facing at Southern Nevada. While the strikeouts are worrisome, his power is jaw-dropping. Already with a HR rate of one in every 10 AB’s, Harper’s power will only grow as his body matures and he spends more time in a gym. He is currently regarded as the number one power option in the draft ahead of UT-Arlington’s Michael Choice, the collegiate junior who led Team USA in slugging percentage last summer. Choice currently outweighs Harper by twenty pounds and is approximately four years older as well. Always with players like Harper, signability questions arise. Given the $15.1 million dollars that Strasburg was awarded in last year’s draft, Harper’s wishes still likely be even greater. Given his age, he probably has more room to bargain than any American born player in history, which only equates to an even higher price tag. Driving up his cost even further is the fact that Harper is represented by Scott Boras.
Another question surrounding Harper is what position he will play in the big leagues. Like all players of Harper’s mold, the risk of spending big money on a player likely to accrue less than 500 AB’s per season can scare scouts and front offices, especially given that lower body injuries are much more common with catchers. Additionally confusing is the speed Harper possesses that would ultimately be wasted behind the plate. Harper is not the first talent to face these issues. The Giants have been barraged this spring with questions regarding where Buster Posey will eventually log the most innings as a big leaguer. In an utterly baffling move, the Giants signed the aging Bengie Molina to receive the majority of pitches this season while Posey again proves his worth in the high minors. Fans and media have suggested that Posey should slide over to another position on defense to get his massive bat in the lineup, but the value of a slugging catcher has forced them to deny such possibilities. Harper may follow a similar path to the big leagues full of positional and time-of-arrival question marks.While a great deal of uncertainty remains with Bryce Harper, one thing is certain. It seems impossible that a team like the Nationals would pass on the potential superstardom of a player with Harper’s endless upside. Unfortunately for them, it also seems impossible that an organization that has never finished about .500 could spend in the neighborhood of $20 million on a player so far from big league arrival. Don’t be surprised if Harper falls out of the top few picks in June. When he does, however, realize that he is not falling because he is anything other than the premier offensive prospect ever. Despite the strikeouts, Bryce Harper has the athletic tools and, at least superficially, the drive to win to justify this claim. At his current homerun rate, he may break a number of records at Southern Nevada this spring. Barring injury, come this June, he likely will break another record: that for amateur price tag.
How about a little fantasy news? Since Joe Nathan is likely out for the year, word around front offices is that the Twins are actively pursuing a number of seasoned late-inning veteran aces. Among those mentioned are Toronto’s Jason Frasor, San Diego’s Heath Bell, and a couple of guys from within including (unfortunately) Francisco Liriano. Let’s address Frasor first. Last season with the Jays, Frasor posted essentially a 1 WHIP and a 1:1 K/IP. These are very comparable to the Mo Riveras and Joe Nathans of the closing ranks. Bell was also elite, but has more strikeout stuff (not by much). The Blue Jays and Padres are both deeply entrenched in the rebuilding phase, and neither team will be relevant in their respective divisions for the foreseeable future. The Twins, however, absolutely must be relevant and must at the very minimum challenge for their divisional title. The opening of Target Field and the contract negotiations with Mr. Twin, Joe Mauer, mean that games cannot be blown in the 9th this season. So who should fantasy owners be picking up off of free agency or trading for in deep mixed leagues? With Frasor and Bell already atop their current clubs’ bullpen depth charts, these players are likely owned in all leagues. In San Diego, a very intriguing young hurler named Mike Adams deserves some consideration by all owners needing saves. Last season Adams posted a 0.74 WHIP while striking out nearly 3 times as many guys as he walked with a K/9 of nearly 9. So he pretty much checked off all the categories we care about. Monitor what the Padres do with Bell all season, because as soon as his dealing becomes imminent – and it will – Adams needs to be owned. Toronto’s situation is less certain. Yeah, they signed Kevin Gregg this winter, but should we care? Gregg, as flyballer, is often at the mercy of the environment he is throwing in. He had a decent level of success in Miami because the Marlins play on a football field, but Gregg’s subsurface numbers last season were better than a casual glance would suggest. Personally, I anticipate him getting the nod in Toronto if Frasor is traded over Scott Downs. Downs is frankly a better pitcher than Gregg statistically, but his handedness and lack of ninth inning track record make him more of a darkhorse to accumulate any noticeable number of saves this year. I hate that we have to even consider this, because the Twins have other good late inning options in Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, and Pat Neshek (if he is healthy and happy), but the idiots in the Twin Cities have actually suggested using Liriano in a bullpen role. Liriano was spectacular this winter and may be the Cy Young of the Grapefruit League. Why not let young pitchers heal from TJS at their own pace? No wonder these guys built a stadium outside in the Arctic. Anyway, just pray this doesn’t come to fruition, not because of fantasy value, but because Liriano is so exciting and Minnesota needs a true ace in a year that Minnesota just needs.
Spring Training stuff. Strasburg was sent down. No surprise here. Just wait, though. From what we saw from him this March, he is the real deal and will immediately become the ace the Nats need. The Braves have mentioned the possibility of using newly acquired Melky Cabrera at the top of the order occasionally while moving Nate McLouth out of the role and into something resembling a weighted platoon situation. Melky has proven one thing since becoming a big leaguer: he has a great chance to hit fungo grounders once his career as a AAAA player ends. Literally half the balls he hit last season were GB’s. This guy sucks. That being said, I have to give some love to the Braves for the deal that sent the harmless hitter to Atlanta because it also brought lefty bullpen arm, Mike Dunn, over. Mike Dunn went to high school about 3 minutes from where I live, and I always have love for clubs that give my old teammates/rivals opportunities. Dunn would have stood a tougher chance of making the big squad with the Yanks. Now the Braves have two young New Mexicans throwing for them (the other being 24-year old 4th rounder, James Parr). Other New Mexicans standing a chance to make some noise this season are Moriarty High grad, Kyle Blanks, and Carlsbad High grad, Cody Ross. Both of these players have already had varying degrees of success at the big league level, and both look like they may have some nice careers ahead of them, especially if they can both make contact a little more frequently.
I got to visit a new venue last night. I was able to catch a game between Dallas Baptist and Lafayette at Patriot Field in Dallas. The venue was very sweet, especially for a smaller college. Baptist thumped Lafayette, but that was to be expected from the perennial D2 powers.
Back home in Farmington a potential meeting between rivals and annual state title front-runners FHS and Piedra Vista was thwarted when PV was unable to top Monument. Colorado’s Fruita High. This is disappointing. Neither Farmington squad – both of which are under new management – has looked terribly sharp this spring. Expect that to change come April and May as both squads return a lot of talent and experience.
Grinnell College is on their way to Vero Beach for their annual spring break trip. We all wish them luck. They will suit up against Amherst tomorrow in what’s sure to be an all-out nerdfest. Maybe afterward the two teams can go toe to toe in a spelling bee or science fair. Sophomore and reigning co-Midwest Conference player of the year, Mike Nodzenski, has been a little banged up this March. Word on the street is that he may have been injured during a team-building exercise that may or may not have involved combat. Here’s to Nodz’s speedy recovery and another great season for him and the Pioneers.