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2012 Draft Prep: Why spring matters

Senior Fantasy Writer
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We've heard it repeated, every year: spring training doesn't matter. Besides crushing the spirit of my 12 year-old self, who, come March, would religiously check the spring training standings every day in the local Syracuse newspaper to see how my Yankees and Blue Jays were doing (Syracuse was the home of Toronto's Triple-A affiliate, so they held some sentimental value), this adage has gotten a bit annoying. And I think some people are coming around to realize that -- even if it's just a little bit -- spring training statistics do matter.

Take, for instance, Tigers pitcher Drew Smyly.

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Coming into spring training, Smyly had one year of professional experience, splitting 2011 between Lakeland and Erie in the Detroit farm system. According to The Baseball Cube, Smyly struck out 130 batters in 126 innings, with a 2.07 ERA and 1.03 WHIP. He gave up two home runs on the entire season. He's currently in competition for the fifth spot in the Detroit rotation and has put up a stunningly-impressive 1.13 ERA over eight innings so far this spring. And that's not counting a masterful minor league performance last week, in which Smyly threw four shutout innings, striking out eight batters. As the fourth inning began, Tigers manager Jim Leyland apparently told Smyly that he had 15 pitches left on the day. Smyly went out and threw 12 pitches, striking out the side.

On Wednesday, Smyly started a spring game against the Cardinals, who trotted out all of their starters. Smyly threw 4 2/3 innings, allowing three runs on three hits. He walked two and struck out three. He gave up a fifth inning home run to Tyler Greene. He'll have one more start before Leyland makes a decision.

So to say spring training doesn't matter not only crushes the dreams of tween baseball fans across upstate New York, it also isn't true. If it didn't matter, Drew Smyly would be back in the minor leagues. Instead, he might have a serious impact on the fortunes of what could turn out to be baseball's best team. And, more importantly, he gave potential owners a look at what he's capable of against major league hitting. If he wins that fifth spot, he could be a sly sleeper pick.

Other observations if you're in one of the many leagues that have yet to draft ...

Red Sox pitchers seem to be going later than they should be: I'm mainly looking at Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, who are currently carrying ADPs of 51 and 166. Lester has a chance to be a top-five starting pitcher and Buchholz missed a chunk of last year with recurring back problems. I'm sure that Lester's somewhat-rocky 2011 and Buchholz's injury-plagued campaign are playing into their decreased values, but don't be surprised if you're sitting around with your friends in October having to listen to them brag about how, "I got Buchholz in the 12th round."

Speaking of October: If I had the ability to travel seven months into the future, here are six players whose stats I would immediately check before doing anything else:

1. Lorenzo Cain: It's not that I'm not sold on Cain's ability, I'm just not sure what to expect from him. Could he have a breakout 30 home run season, but hit .255 and steal 11 bases? Maybe. Could he also have a serviceable 15 home run season while batting .310 and stealing 35 bases? Possibly. I know Cain is talented, I'd just like to know from where that talent is going to spring, so I can build around him accordingly.

2. Brett Lawrie: Lawrie seems at times to be the real deal, but he also seems to be a little bit overrated. This glance to the future is based solely on how many home runs Lawrie will finish with. 30? 40? 45?

3. Shelley Duncan: Duncan could either go down the Jose Bautista/Carlos Quentin road of "Guy with power who just never got a solid shot at playing time" or "Guy who once again got hot early, then disappeared, then hit 10 homers in September." I'm not sure which way to go on this, because if he wins that job in Cleveland's left field (and all indications are that he will) and holds on to it, he can be a really dangerous source of power. But if they decide to platoon him or if he gets hurt, it might lead to the annual marginalizing of Shelley Duncan. I want to grab him late in drafts, I just don't know which historical precedence path to follow here.

4. Carl Crawford: I'm pretty much all-in with Crawford this year, chalking 2011 up to an aberration; a hybrid of pressure to perform over a large contract and adjustment to a new team. I don't think anything he does or doesn't do this year will be tied to his wrist surgery. It's more of his ability to bounce back from a bad season and show that he didn't lose any of his skill.

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5. Grant Balfour: Come October, Balfour could have 40 saves or he could have 13. I'm in the small camp that says 40, apparently. I see Balfour pulling a Kyle Farnsworth, emerging from middle relief to grab the closer job and just running with it, with a trail of doubters in his wake.

6. Alex Rodriguez: He's incredibly focused, and -- although this is just speculation -- I'm guessing he's dialed in and eager to prove that 2011 was an injury-marred fluke.

Fun CBSSports.com tip that I learned today: This is for those of you who have old, vestigial leagues that show up when you're looking for your current ones and just annoyingly take up space. Hover over "Fantasy" on your home screen. All your team logos and names should show up. Go to "Manage Logos," which is just to the left of "Fantasy News and Alerts." This will take you to a screen where you can hide teams from that little box.

"Yu Darvish" ... There's a scene in the cult classic Donnie Darko where Drew Barrymore's character says, "Donnie Darko," and Noah Wylie's simply replies, "I know." That's kind of how I'm feeling about Yu Darvish. He's in the general sub-consciousness. We don't really know what to think of him yet. But ... he's there. I don't know how his stats are going to look with all the factors facing him -- the mid-summer Texas heat, the changeover to Major League Baseball, the changes in routine. But Darvish is somehow on every one of my teams this year. And fine, it's partially because he'll be easy (or at least interesting) to root for, and partially because, if he does well, I can just pat myself on the back and tell everyone, "I drafted him, look at me, I'm a genius." But I think that if you look at the starting pitchers who come over from Japan -- outside of a few exceptions -- they find success. Or at least lots of strikeouts. Even Kei Igawa, as disastrous as his rookie season in New York was, struck out about seven batters per nine innings.

Al Melchior = man among boys: After probably our 20th draft/auction combined between the two of us this week, I mentioned to Al that he could probably do our Wednesday afternoon draft -- comprised of everyone associated with the Fantasy Baseball 360 show (debuts next week!) -- with his eyes closed. This quickly spiraled into an "I'll do it if you do it" dare, where we decided we'd pick blindly in the 17th round of a 21-round draft. Al went first and landed on Kyle Farnsworth. Four picks later, I clicked on David Freese.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Nando Di Fino at @NandoCBS . You can also send our staff an e-mail at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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