A lot can change in 11 years.
I should know. My first year playing Fantasy Baseball was 2000, when I drafted a team that featured Andres Galarraga at first base, Tony Batista and Jose Vidro up the middle and Curt Schilling, David Wells and Greg Maddux on a pitching staff that, at the time, rated as one of the best in the league.
Ancient history, right?
Yet for as outdated as that roster may seem and for as foreign as that draft may look to us today, the name at the very top of the list is as familiar as the pinstripes on his uniform:
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Imagine during that 11-year period the number of drafts all over the world that began the exact same way: A-Rod, A-Rod, A-Rod. Fantasy Football doesn't have an equivalent -- not with the short lifespan of running backs -- and in Fantasy Basketball, LeBron James' run is about over now that he's sharing the ball with Dwyane Wade. In Fantasy sports as a whole, there hasn't been a more automatic pick than the first overall in baseball drafts.
And it's been that way not just for as long as I've been writing about Fantasy Baseball, but for as long as I've been playing it -- since I made that seemingly innocent decision late in high school that has reshaped the course of my entire life.
Yes, a lot can change in 11 years, and a lot has. But the one constant through it all has been A-Rod. And even though Albert Pujols and Hanley Ramirez have closed the gap in recent years, the prevailing wisdom has remained: Whenever you stray from A-Rod, he'll make you regret it.
Let's see if he does now.
Sliders ... These players are more than just hot or cold. Their recent play indicates a long-term change in value.
Alex Rodriguez, 3B, Yankees
The irony here is that for as long as Fantasy owners have tried to discredit A-Rod, looking for every excuse not to draft him first overall, his demise has come with nary a whimper. In fact, if you didn't own him in Fantasy, you'd probably assume A-Rod was still A-Rod, perhaps because he still made the All-Star team or because he still ranks among the league leaders in RBI.
But if you look at his other stats, he clearly isn't the same player who went first in all those drafts all those years. And considering he just turned 35 a couple weeks ago, that's a sobering thought.
His OPS is only .804, which is more than 100 points lower than last year's and the lowest mark of his career. His previous low, .846, came in 1997, when he was a 21-year-old in his second year in the league.
That number isn't just a reflection of his declining power -- he's on pace for only 25 homers, which would also be his lowest since that 1997 season -- but also his reduced walk rate. Pitchers don't fear him anymore. They're no longer pitching around him, which is perhaps the greatest testament to his decline. His .335 OPS isn't just low by his standards, but low period.
And the result? The first-rounder we've come to know and love (or hate) ranks eighth among third basemen in standard Head-to-Head leagues, and two of the guys nipping at his heels -- Scott Rolen and Martin Prado -- have each spent time on the DL. He could conceivably rank 10th at the position, which would make him barely a starter in shallower mixed leagues.
Knowing all that, would you want to draft him in the first round again? Would you want to make him one of your keepers coming off his worst season in 15 years, at age 35 and with a developing injury history? Not me.
The future Hall of Famer is by no means Fantasy deadweight, but the A-Rod we've known since before some of us had the Internet is no longer the A-Rod we're using in Fantasy. You're better off thinking of him as a completely different player.
Juan Pierre, OF, White Sox
Granted, when a non-power hitter spends much of the season hitting at or below .250, he isn't going to win over many Fantasy owners. But points are points in Fantasy, and if a player can get them without an impressive stat line, more power to him.
And more power to the perceptive Fantasy owner who picks up on it.
Perhaps you haven't noticed because you were so busy starting at his cringe-worthy .640 OPS, but Pierre ranks 24th among outfielders in standard Head-to-Head leagues, ahead of big-name options like Matt Kemp, Nick Markakis and Ichiro Suzuki. And as you might expect, his AL-leading 42 stolen bases give him even more value in Rotisserie leagues, where he ranks 16th among outfielders.
So why is he owned in only 77 percent of leagues? Sounds to me like he should be starting in more than that.
If anything, he's only going to get better from here. He's currently riding a 15-game hitting streak during which he's batting .361 (22 for 61) with seven stolen bases. Perhaps he's overdue for a hot streak like the one he had when he took over for Manny Ramirez last year, batting .425 (37 for 87) during a 20-game stretch.
Chances are his struggles aren't a product of age. If they were, his speed would be the first thing to go.
Pierre isn't the type of player who's going to carry your team from one week to the next, but his steadiness makes him plenty attractive in Fantasy still. Unless you play in a league that completely dilutes the value of stolen bases, he deserves a roster spot.
Ted Lilly, SP, Dodgers
Lilly might have the most misleading numbers of any starting pitcher in baseball.
His record is 5-8, which doesn't translate to much Fantasy production. In fact, he ranks 54th among starting pitchers in standard Head-to-Head leagues, behind uninspiring options like Clayton Richard, Jon Garland and Fausto Carmona.
But as always, the win-loss record doesn't tell the whole story.
His 1.08 WHIP ranks seventh among pitchers with at least 100 innings, which means he's giving himself as good of a chance to succeed as he has at any point during his mostly successful career. True, his strikeout rate is down in his first season back from shoulder surgery, but not over his last five starts. He has struck out more than a batter per inning during that stretch, posting a 2.18 ERA.
You get the picture? He's a good pitcher. The Cubs were playing bad baseball, and he was one of the unfortunate victims of it. Now that he's with a contender in Los Angeles, he should make a quick turnaround, as he already seems to have done with a 2-0 record in his first two starts.
I'm thinking he's a must-start the rest of the way. He certainly has been before.
Jason Heyward, OF, Braves
Never has a player so unproven gotten so much respect.
Yes, Heyward entered the season as the top prospect in baseball, and yes, he hit that big home run in his first major-league at-bat, and yes, he went on to hit an impressive .292 with 10 homers and a .988 OPS over the first two months. But Fantasy is the ultimate game of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, and in that regard, Heyward just doesn't measure up.
Since May 30, which covers a span of 190 at-bats, Heyward is batting .232 with exactly one home run (edit: OK, so he homered again Monday, but my point remains). And you can't blame it all on the thumb injury that sidelined him for three weeks in June and July. He's batting just .125 (4 for 32) over his last nine games.
Yet he remains owned in 97 percent of Fantasy leagues, which is a rate normally reserved for the elite players in the game. See the problem here? Baseball fans already view him as a superstar, giving him an infinite leash in their Fantasy leagues and voting him into the All-Star game.
What exactly did he do to deserve all that?
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Certainly, he has the talent, but his numbers show he still has a ways go, which you'd think people would expect considering he's all of 21 years old. But when I see him getting more credit than Angel Pagan and Andres Torres in seasonal formats, I can't help but wonder.
Based on what I've seen so far from Heyward, I have little reason to doubt he'll eventually become the monster scouts project him to be, and for that reason, you wouldn't be wrong to continue stashing him in Fantasy. But unless you're playing with a barren waiver wire, you shouldn't feel obligated to do so.
Carlos Gonzalez, OF, Rockies
Gonzalez is my least-favorite type of hitter -- the kind who strikes out five times as often as he walks.
But if I don't acknowledge his greatness now, I'll be the laughing stock of the entire Fantasy-playing community.
Over the last two weeks, he has scored a ridiculous 98 points in standard Head-to-Head leagues, which is 16 more than the second-best player during that stretch (Jose Bautista) and 30 more than the third-best player (Joe Mauer). It's also more than half of Manny Ramirez's season total.
To put it in pure baseball terms, Gonzalez is batting .482 (27 for 56) with eight homers and five steals during that stretch, further establishing himself as the five-category stud he has been all season.
When you consider Gonzalez's batting average hasn't dipped below .294 all season, my usual argument about high strikeout rates -- that they lead to wild fluctuations in batting average -- doesn't hold much water. He's a hitting freak, and he first showed it when he hit .314 over the final two months last year. If you didn't buy it then, you have to now.
To clear the mental hurdle of the high strikeout rate, let's not lump Gonzalez in with the Curtis Grandersons and Alfonso Sorianos of the world. Let's instead compare him to fellow Colorado great Andres Galarraga, who hit .316 with a .944 OPS in five seasons with the Rockies despite some horrendous strikeout-to-walk ratios.
Gonzalez currently ranks fifth among outfielders in standard Head-to-Head leagues, and I imagine he'll remain in the top 10 all season.
Hanging Sliders ... These guys look like Sliders, but alas, they really are just streaking.
Jake Westbrook, SP, Cardinals
So ... basically, Westbrook went to the National League and turned into Chris Carpenter, allowing five earned runs on only 10 hits with 16 strikeouts in 13 innings.
It's a nice story, but it's about as far-fetched as Jack and the Beanstalk.
The strikeouts are probably what have you most excited considering he averaged only 5.1 per nine innings with the Indians, but Westbrook himself says you shouldn't read too much into them.
"I can't explain (the strikeouts)," Westbrook said after his last start Saturday at Florida. "Probably, for a lot of these guys, it's the first time facing me."
You see there? Maybe if Westbrook pointed to some mechanical adjustment or change in his repertoire, we'd have something to talk about, but since he didn't, we have to consider these strikeouts exactly what he's calling them: a fluke.
I realize Westbrook is going from a last-place team to a contender and from the heavy-hitting AL to the supposedly lighter-hitting NL. I also realize he's working with pitching guru Dave Duncan for the first time. But you have to realize he's been around for a while. He doesn't have many surprises left in him. In 183 career starts, he has a 4.36 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP, striking out 5.0 batters per nine innings. Duncan is good and all, but not so good that he can reinvent a 10-year veteran in the span of one week.
Westbrook is an OK stopgap in mixed leagues, but you shouldn't get too attached to him. He won't be a reliable Fantasy option down the stretch.
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