If your baseball calendar begins in April, you've probably come to think of April 4 as "opening night."
And if you're measuring "night" by any of the four time zones covering the contiguous United States, you'd be right.
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But in the wee hours of the mornings of March 28 and 29, the Mariners and Athletics will meet up in Tokyo to play the first two official games of the 2012 season. And unless you play in a CBSSports.com Commissioner league, where you can pretty much do whatever the heck you want, or a free Head-to-Head league, those games count.
It's not the first time Major League Baseball has done this, wanting to introduce Japan to the "real" product without introducing the teams in question to a case of jet lag that would put them at an early disadvantage. The solution: Give those teams a recuperation period even if it means turning the whole Fantasy world on its head.
It's like when the fire alarm goes off before you've ever had a drill. Everyone rushes around in a panic screaming, "What do we do!? What do we do!?"
And just like the simple answer there is "get out of the building," the simple one here is "start your best players."
But since we have only these two games on our plates for the next week, we're granted the luxury of obsessing, which in this case means examining each player individually.
My colleague, Al Melchior, will discuss the pitchers taking part in the series in a later piece. This one focuses on the hitters, and for them, the biggest overriding factor is that the Mariners and Athletics are two of only six teams playing four games in Fantasy Week 1 (March 28-April 8). The rest are all playing three, which means if you're on the fence about whether to start one of these players or some player on some other team, the extra game might be enough to put you over the edge.
Another factor is that the Tokyo Dome is a small park that might result in more home runs than usual. Will two games there be enough to turn any of these players into a Week 1 sensation? Probably not, but ultimately that's for you to decide.
At least you can trust that if somebody does, you'll have heard about him here first. Every potential contributor gets a blurb, beginning of course with the "road" team.
Or, um, the one with the gray pants.
Projected starting lineups for March 28-29 in Japan:
1. Chone Figgins, 3B: Even though he has hit only .236 in the first two years of his contract (including .188) last year, the Mariners are giving $36-million man Figgins another shot at playing every day -- and as the leadoff hitter, no less. Considering two of the Mariners' biggest spring storylines -- Kyle Seager and Alex Liddi -- also play third base, Figgins might not play all four games this week. Start him only out of desperation for steals.
2. Dustin Ackley, 2B: Ackley may have ended his rookie 2011 season on a down note, but he has been an extra-base machine this spring, batting .306 (11 for 36) with six doubles, two triples and a homer. You drafted him to start for you, and these first four games might just set the tone for what could be a breakout season.
3. Ichiro Suzuki, RF: After more than a decade of batting leadoff, Ichiro suddenly finds himself in the three hole, which could mean fewer steals. Unfortunately, speed is his greatest asset these days. The career .326 hitter hit only .272 last year, and Justin Smoak likely isn't the kind of lineup protection that will put him back on course at age 38. You still start Ichiro in Fantasy, but perhaps not with your usual enthusiasm.
4. Justin Smoak, 1B: Smoak was hot enough to begin and end last season that he still has legitimate sleeper appeal. He was battling a thumb injury in between, after all. First base is a deep enough position that you shouldn't bother starting him in standard leagues, but after watching him hit .393 (11 for 28) with a .486 on-base percentage this spring, the four-game week might be justification enough to slip him in your lineup in a deeper league.
5. Jesus Montero, DH: If Montero gets off to the same start with the Mariners that he did for the Yankees last September, homering four times in 61 at-bats, he could put on a show at the Tokyo Dome. You'll be starting him anyway, of course, since only eight other catcher-eligible players can match the rookie's potential, but the hunch here is he'll be the star of the series.
6. Mike Carp, LF: The Mariners are facing Brandon McCarthy and Bartolo Colon in Japan and will likely face those same two when the teams close out the series back in the U.S. You'd think the surplus of right-handers would work in Carp's favor, but the left-handed hitter actually had a higher OPS against lefties (.884) than righties (.761) last year. He's a serviceable source of power but no reason to get excited in mixed leagues.
7. Miguel Olivo, C: Olivo's glove earns him the starting nod more than his bat. He'll pop a few homers, having averaged 16.7 over the last six seasons, but he's such a disaster in every other area that he's no better than a No. 2 catcher in mixed leagues. And with Montero likely to start behind the plate instead of him in one of the team's four games, that doesn't figure to change this week.
8. Michael Saunders, CF: Saunders won the opportunity to fill in for Franklin Gutierrez (pectoral) in center field by hitting .324 (12 for 37) with a home run this spring, but we've been through this same song and dance with him before. The former top prospect just hasn't been able to get it done in the majors. With Figgins also capable of playing center field, Saunders could lose his job to Seager or Liddi before the first week is up.
9. Brendan Ryan, SS: Ryan plays defense -- the kind real-life teams like the Mariners value. Unfortunately, nothing he does is of much good to Fantasy owners. He'll get his at-bats and perhaps steal a handful of bases, but Ryan is a desperation play even in AL-only leagues.
Notable bench options:
Kyle Seager, 3B: Seager entered spring training competing for a starting job and so far has hit .350 (14 for 40) with three home runs. So why is he still on the bench? Good question. Considering he's a left-hander and capable of playing anywhere on the infield, he could get a couple starts against the four righties this week. And when one of Figgins, Saunders or Ryan falters, he'll be ready to step in full-time, rewarding the AL-only owners who stashed him.
Alex Liddi, 3B: As was the case throughout his minor-league career, Liddi's high strikeout rate hasn't been a big deal this spring. His .429 batting ranks among the top players in either league, and he also has 10 RBI. He would seemingly be another candidate to replace Figgins at third ... except that he has played mostly first base this spring. Obviously, this week isn't the time to use him, but if he winds up in a platoon role at some point, he could surprise.
Casper Wells, OF: Wells doesn't profile as an everyday player, but he impressed enough with his power after coming over from the Tigers last year that he'll surely start for either Saunders or Carp against the left-handers. With no lefties on tap this week, he's an obvious sit in Fantasy.
1. Jemile Weeks, 2B: Chances are Weeks is starting in most leagues anyway, but in the ones where he's borderline, if the four games aren't enough to win you over, perhaps rethinking his power potential will. He's no Rickie Weeks, of course, but both of his homers last year came in the final week of the season and he has three this spring. I like his chances over a three-game Neil Walker's.
2. Cliff Pennington, SS: Pennington has reached base at a .477 clip this spring, earning the second spot in the batting order. If he stays there, he might get enough at-bats to be a stopgap off the waiver wire at some point, but because he's no sure bet for steals, he doesn't offer enough for mixed-league use at this early stage of the season.
3. Coco Crisp, LF: After serving as the team's leadoff hitter most of the last two years, Crisp suddenly finds himself in the role of middle-of-the-order hitter. It doesn't change much, though. The A's will have such a hard time scoring this year that they'll still ask him run plenty. Basically, if you're depending on him for steals, you're starting him. If not, you'll find better hitters out there in mixed leagues.
4. Seth Smith, DH: Smith's career OPS against lefties (.588, compared to .881 against righties) means he'll likely be sitting in favor of Jonny Gomes or Collin Cowgill during the two games Jason Vargas starts. That's reason enough to avoid him this week. Long-term, he might be a player you avoid altogether. No, he didn't struggle away from Coors Field during his time as a Rockie, but O.co Coliseum is on the opposite end of the hitter-pitcher spectrum.
5. Yoenis Cespedes, CF: Cespedes is the only player in either lineup currently battling injury, but his leg cramp won't be the reason you sit him in mixed leagues. More likely, the two games against a true ace like Felix Hernandez will scare you way. Not exactly a warm welcome to the big leagues. Cespedes, despite his talents, will likely begin his career on a down note. He's more of an option to stash than start right now.
6. Josh Reddick, RF: Reddick has hit .333 (13 for 39) with two home runs and a .940 OPS this spring, holding off the hot-hitting Cowgill (who will likely be his platoon partner) for the starting job. He isn't guaranteed anything if he gets off to a slow start, though. The former Red Sox is more of an AL-only option at this stage anyway, but with the left-handed Vargas on tap twice this week, you might want to sit him even in those formats.
7. Kurt Suzuki, C: By now, you should know Suzuki isn't going to stand out in any one category, but his surplus of at-bats still gives him an advantage at catcher. This four-game week is like a microcosm of that. Suzuki may very well start all four of those games while some other catchers in the league may start only twice this week. That's not necessarily enough reason to add Suzuki off the waiver wire, but if you own him as a backup, weigh him against your starter.
8. Brandon Allen, 1B: Allen beat out fellow Quadruple-A player Kila Ka'aihue for the starting job this spring, but Ka'aihue is actually the one ending the exhibition season on a high note, which tells me the two might just end up splitting time. Either could be a 20-homer guy with full-time at-bats, but neither is more than a low-end AL-only option until we get a little more clarity here.
9. Josh Donaldson, 3B: Donaldson, a converted catcher with a decent batting eye, is already the team's Plan B at the position after Scott Sizemore went down with a torn ACL, and he's not far ahead of Plan C. In fact, the left-handed hitting Eric Sogard may end up playing just as much this week with Hernandez on tap twice. If the lefty-righty thing becomes routine, Donaldson won't even be worth owning in AL-only leagues.
Notable bench options:
Kila Ka'aihue, 1B: Ka'aihue spent the early stages of spring training more or less confirming the Royals' suspicion that his crazy minor-league numbers would never translate to the majors, but he has come on strong with three homers in his last eight games. Still, he's a slow start away from going back to the minors. Even if you assume he'll get a couple starts over Allen this week, he's not worth using in AL-only leagues.
Eric Sogard, SS: Sogard has arguably been the A's most impressive player this spring, hitting .341 (15 for 44) with two homers, two steals and a .400 on-base percentage. He's not a huge source of power or speed, but he offers enough to go along with a high on-base percentage that he could become another Fernando Vina type. He's worth monitoring in AL-only leagues.
Collin Cowgill, OF: Cowgill was never intended to be more than just a platoon player, but he has opened eyes by hitting .419 (18 for 43) with four steals this spring. He won't matter outside of AL-only leagues if he's only starting against lefties, but given his minor-league track record, he's a threat for more playing time down the line.
Jonny Gomes, OF: The Reds were willing to live and die with Gomes' streakiness over the last few years, but the Athletics are taking a more calculated approach with the established lefty-killer: They're, you know, saving him for the lefties. He hit .311 against them compared to .167 against righties last year. For his career, it's .281 vs. .224. In lefty-loaded weeks, Gomes will be useful in AL-only formats, but two games against Vargas isn't enticing enough this week.
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