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June 20, 2006

Fantasy Focus

The RotoWire ROI 100

by Erik Siegrist

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The ROI (Return On Investment) 100 is a different sort of prospect list. Most lists, including RotoWire's own, attempt to measure the likely futures and ceilings of the next generation of stars in raw baseball terms. The ROI 100, on the other hand, focuses solely on fantasy league economic upside, attempting to measure the profit a player might return both in the short-term (next season) and long-term (over the length of a typical roto contract.) As such, fantasy priorities such as stolen bases and saves--not to mention the simple opportunity for playing time--are given more weight than they are on some more traditional prospect lists. The overriding principle here is a basic inflationary rule: a dollar earned in 2006 is worth more than a dollar earned down the road.

Part one will cover American League prospects, including their overall rank. Part two will cover the National League. An update, discussing the largest movers and new entries, will follow in about a month, in time for late July-early August trade deadlines.

Disclaimer: Past performance does not guarantee future results. Prospect values and investment returns will fluctuate. This article is not intended to provide specific individual advice including, without reservation, investment, financial, legal, accounting, or rotisserie.

1. Francisco Liriano, SP, Min: Johan 2.0? Six starts and 58 innings into his first full big league season, the answer's been a resounding yes, including an eerily reminiscent 10.34 K/9 rate. Breaking camp as a reliever only held his price tag down, just as it did with Santana before he became the AL's best starter. If you have Liriano now, or can somehow acquire him, you have a lot to look forward to.

4. Jonathan Papelbon, P, Bos: Papelbon has clamped on to the Red Sox's closer job like a pit bull, posting a ridiculous 0.25 ERA so far in 2006. He's got the arsenal to be in the rotation but, like Eric Gagne on the other coast, could be 'trapped' by his own success in the bullpen. From a fantasy standpoint, however, saves are gold, and Papelbon is looking like a young King Midas.

5. Jason Kubel, OF/DH, Min: It took Kubel some time to shake off the rust, and the notoriously cautious Twins let him do it at Triple-A longer than was probably necessary, but a late power burst in June indicates that he's just about to explode. Chances are his salary is rock-bottom in your league due to his 2005 ACL rehab; he should be a prime target in any rebuilding effort.

6. Ian Kinsler, 2B, Tex: Every report on Kinsler screamed 'special' coming into the season, and when he's been off the DL he's been able to show why. Middle infielders with 20/20 potential are a valuable commodity for a reason--here's hoping Kinsler doesn't become the AL's answer to Marcus Giles in health as well as ability.

8. Justin Verlander, SP, Det: His breakout 2005 and otherworldly stuff make him a prized fantasy commodity, even if his strikeout totals in the majors haven't matched the hype just yet (5.32 K/9). Eight wins in his first 16 big league starts have helped cushion that 'blow,' however; his timing in hitting the majors just as the Tigers got good bodes well for his value.

10. Chris Ray, RP, Bal: In the space of two seasons Ray has gone from interesting Double-A relief prospect, to closer of the future, to closer, pushing aside Jorge Julio and B.J. Ryan (both now closing elsewhere, ironically) in the process. His strikeout rate has hovered around 9.0 K/9 no matter where he's pitched. He figures to have a nice run at a reasonable price in fantasy bullpens.

12. Ervin Santana, SP, LAA: Between the end of 2005 and the beginning of 2006, 'the other' Santana has had almost a full season of success in the Angels' rotation: 178 2/3 innings, 4.03 ERA, 1.200 WHIP, 127/49 K/BB ratio. At only 23 years old, you can reasonably assume Santana's next six baseball months might even be better.

13. Curtis Granderson, OF, Det: Granderson has been solid but unspectacular at the plate so far in 2006, but that's still impressive for a center fielder in his first full big league campaign, and his numbers are right in line with his minor league production. At 25, he's older than most on this list, but that just means he'll hit his peak sooner.

15. Dallas McPherson, 3B, LAA: McPherson has taken longer to start establishing himself in the majors than you'd like, but he now appears on track to becoming a nice, cheap fantasy power source. He won't be among the game's young elite at the hot corner, though--McPherson is more Gary Gaetti than David Wright.

17. Alex Gordon, 3B/OF, KC: Gordon's ETA is sometime in 2007, despite the ease with which he's conquered Double-A so far (.301/.404/.511 through 229 AB), but he figures to immediately become the Royals' best hitter when he gets there--unless Billy Butler has beaten him to Kansas City.

20. Felix Hernandez, SP, Sea: The fact of the matter is, Hernandez was too hyped, too precocious and just too darn good to receive any kind of rookie discount at the auction table, which just magnifies his rough start to 2006. If his salary in your league fell far enough short of his Gooden-like expectations to make him worth pursuing for next season, now is the time to pursue him.

22. Bobby Jenks, RP, ChW: Jenks shook off a brutal spring training and some early bumps to firmly establish himself as the White Sox's closer following last year's playoff heroics, or at least as firmly as any closer can establish himself on the South Side of Chicago. He's got a classic relief ace repertoire, a media-friendly image, and has so far seemed to be surprisingly coachable despite his reputation from the Angels' system--there are no warning signs ahead that Jenks will be anything less than great at the back of the bullpen.

23. Billy Butler, OF, KC: Butler has maintained a .300 batting average and .500 SLG at Double-A as a 20-year-old, an outstanding achievement. His walk rate has also rebounded after taking a dip following his 2005 promotion to that level. The race is now on to see whether he or Alex Gordon make their big league debuts first--whichever of them wins, however, the losers are AL Central pitchers.

24. Delmon Young, OF, TB: Young's career suffered its first major setback this season, following his lengthy suspension. How well he rebounds, and what lessons he learned from the incident, will go a long way towards shaping his future, but for now assume his star is just a bit tarnished, not dimmed.

25. Joel Zumaya, P, Det: Zumaya is cutting his teeth in the Tigers bullpen, where his triple-digit heat is most effective and control issues less damaging. Todd Jones' collapse has led to talk of Zumaya closing, which offers the possibility of value in the short and long terms. Put him near the top of your 'targets' list.

26. Kendry Morales, 1B/DH, LAA: Morales rushed into the breach when Casey Kotchman once again went down, and it will be interesting to see which of them the Angels eventually choose to roll with--assuming they choose at all, and don't simply start Morales on a DH career. In the short term, his struggles in the majors could send him back to Triple-A once the team gets healthier. In the long run, Morales may not end up being the Cuban Pujols, but he still promises to be a very potent fantasy force.

28. Yuniesky Betancourt, SS, Sea: It's Betancourt's glove that got him to the majors, but he's providing some value at the plate now that he's there. He could stand to walk more, but he doesn't strike out an awful lot either, which means there's a somewhat better chance he might be able to maintain a useful batting average while chipping in a nice handful of steals. A young Omar Vizquel is starting to look like a very nice comparison point.

29. Jered Weaver, SP, LAA: On talent and even performance, the junior Weaver brother should rank even higher on this list, but the Angels seem committed to riding their mediocre veteran pitchers (such as his older brother Jeff) as far as they can rather than giving a spot to Jered. It might take a trade of one of those mediocre vets to clear a place for Weaver before 2007.

31. Nick Markakis, OF, Bal: He wasn't expected to be ready this soon--heck, according to some scouts he wasn't expected to be a hitter at all in the pros--but although he's struggled, Markakis hasn't looked completely out of place in his 2006 debut. If Baltimore had a better option he'd be back in the high minors, but now that he's here he's probably not going anywhere.

33. Howie Kendrick, 2B, LAA: He struggled in his first brief taste of the majors, but he seems intent on taking out those frustrations on PCL pitching, taking a run at .400 through the season's first three months. His defense has progressed nicely, and Adam Kennedy isn't signed past 2006, so at worst Kendrick seems penciled in as the Angels' Opening Day second baseman in 2007.

36. Scott Baker, SP, Min: After a nice 2005 tease, Baker hit a wall in the majors in the first half of 2006. He still figures to be a solid #3/#4 hurler behind Santana and Liriano, but the Twins are filthy with pitching prospects so he might get fewer chances to establish himself than you'd expect.

37. B. J. Upton, SS, TB: You can almost feel the frustration radiating off Upton's stat line. He continues to make errors, his power stroke has evaporated, and now he joins Delmon Young in the doghouse after a DWI. He's still just 21, though, and still has a world of upside. In fantasy terms, how patient you can be with Upton depends almost entirely on your league contract structure; if that clock is ticking, there's a real possibility you might not get any return on him before it winds down.

38. Brian Anderson, OF, ChW: Anderson's miserable 2006 introduction to the pros isn't all that surprising; he's had adjustment issues every step up the ladder. The White Sox, looking to the playoffs, aren't likely to be much more patient with him than they've already been, however, so the returns may not start arriving until 2007. A trade for a veteran center fielder, with Anderson as part of the bait, can't be ruled out either.

39. Justin Huber, 1B, KC: The inexplicable Doug Mientkiewicz signing by Allard Baird left Huber stuck in Triple-A even after the inevitable Mike Sweeney injury. Baird is now gone, however, so hopefully the new regime will do what needs to be done, which is to give Huber a place in the Royals' regular batting order and let him sink or swim.

40. Jon Lester, SP, Bos: Lester's control still needs work (4.82 BB/9 at Triple-A) but as a power lefty he can get away with walks better than some. He's a few weeks older than Scott Kazmir, but isn't far behind him on the development curve despite being 50-odd major league starts in the hole. The two could be about to embark on a storied rivalry, but probably not until 2007.

41. Brandon Wood, SS, LAA: His strikeouts have jumped at Double-A, but he's compensated by walking more--Wood is convincingly proving that his 2005 wasn't simply a product of the California League's bandbox stadiums. Orlando Cabrera's contract runs through 2008, but is very tradable in a world where Rafael Furcal is a $13 million-a-year player. When Wood is ready, the Angels will find room for him.

42. Andy Marte, 3B, Cle: Being traded twice in the offseason seems to have thrown Marte for a loop, as his production at the plate has taken a tumble in 2006. He's too young to write off, but it's time to start asking what it was that Atlanta and Boston saw in him, or didn't see, that made them willing to deal him.

43. Hayden Penn, SP, Bal: Penn got back on the horse after his ugly 2005 major league debut, posting five great starts at Triple-A this year before being felled by appendicitis just as the Orioles were about to call him up. He still has a chance to be an important part of Baltimore's rotation in the second half once he builds his strength back up.

48. Casey Kotchman, 1B, LAA: Once again Kotchman has battled injuries and performance issues, only this time the Angels had someone else to turn to in Kendry Morales. It's officially time to start looking for a change of scenery to try and salvage Kotchman's prospect status.

50. Daric Barton, 1B/DH, Oak: Barton was struggling through a tough transition to Triple-A when he fractured his elbow. His impatient current owner could be thinking 'bust,' but the wise fantasy owner will look at his age relative to level (he's still shockingly young at 20, given how long he's been a top prospect) and smile. The danger here is not that Barton will wash out, but that his first fantasy contract will be up before he does more than scratch the surface of his potential.

51. Boof Bonser, SP, Min: The A.J. Pierzynski trade looks worse and worse for the Giants with each passing day. Joe Nathan has become one of the AL's best closers; Francisco Liriano is the most impressive rookie pitcher in the majors; and now Bonser has taken his first steps towards being a useful major league starter. If he can solve his gopherballitis, Bonser--like Scott Baker--might have just enough time to carve out a spot for himself in the majors before the next wave of Twins pitching prospects like Matt Garza and Kevin Slowey start pushing him from behind.

52. Mike Napoli, C, LAA: Jeff Mathis was supposed to be the Angels' catcher of the future, but it's Napoli who has quietly begun to wrest the starting job away from place-holder Jose Molina. The power he's displayed is no fluke (he had 60 minor league home runs in '04-'05), and he has solid plate discipline, so the only real question hanging over him is whether his defense is up to major league standards.

55. Ryan Sweeney, OF, ChW: Sweeney appears on his way to another .300 batting average with little power at Triple-A in 2006, although he has added about 40 points of ISO from his 2005 line. That's better than it sounds; any 21-year-old who can post even respectable numbers at that level is doing well. If you can afford to be patient with him that power should eventually develop, but those who remember David McCarty's debut with the Twins in '93 should understand the dangers of rushing Sweeney to the majors without it.

62. John Danks, SP, Tex: Danks' production has stepped up in 2006, including a near 4:1 K:BB ratio at Double-A, but arm trouble has also given the Rangers a scare. Don't expect Texas to push him until they're comfortable that he's 100% healthy, so a 2007 major league ETA--even a second half of '07 ETA--is the safe projection.

63. Kenji Johjima, C, Sea: After a good start Johjima has run into the usual 'crossing the Pacific' adjustment period. His 2007 is likely to be better than his 2006, but his price tag might not make it worth taking that chance.

64. Matt Garza, SP, Min: Garza has gone from intriguing high-profile A-ball prospect to potential 2007 Twins starter thanks to a 100/20 K/BB ratio in 80 innings and sub-2.00 ERAs at both High-A and Double-A. The scary thing is, he may not even be having the best season of any Minnesota minor league pitcher, as Kevin Slowey (drafted one year after Garza) is dismantling the Florida State League himself. That one year all but guarantees that, barring a setback of course, Garza will hit the majors first. In an organization rapidly filling up with young potential aces, even at the major league level, that year could make all the difference.

65. Ryan Garko, 1B/DH, Cle: Garko has struggled in the first half, partially due to a wrist injury after a plunking. It's looking more and more like he's a bat without a position, too, further eroding his value. His 2007 could end up looking something like Josh Willingham's 2006, however--it's too early to think about giving up on him.

70. Casey Janssen, SP, Tor: Typical of recent Blue Jays pitching prospects Janssen is a control freak, walking just 20 batters in 148 2/3 innings across three levels in 2005, which also happened to be his pro debut. The rapid progress continued this season, as he was pressed into big league service after just 20 innings at Triple-A, with shockingly solid results. He'll likely head back to the minors once the Toronto staff gets healthier, but he's done all he can so far to distinguish himself from the pack in the Blue Jays system.

72. Craig Hansen, RP, Bos: The Red Sox spent a lot of money on Hansen to be their closer of the future, only to watch Jonathan Papelbon slip into the role like he was born for it. Hansen's in a very tricky position roto-wise. Chances are he was more expensive than comparable minor league relief prospects, given his high draft status, college pedigree and the perception that he was all but major league ready. If he gets the job he was drafted for, he'll be worth whatever you paid for him; if instead Boston has him playing Mariano Rivera/Duane Ward to Papelbon's John Wetteland/Tom Henke, he'll probably be outrageously priced for a set-up man.

77. Josh Fields, 3B, ChW: He's still striking out once a game or more on average, but otherwise Fields is rapidly putting distance between himself and the specter of Joe Borchard's prospect status. He's improved in all facets of the game in 2006; however, Joe Crede is also on his way to a career year in the majors, and it could be tough for Fields to unseat a certified Playoff Hero. A 2007 major league debut is no sure thing.

78. Dustin McGowan, P, Tor: The Blue Jays' head-scratching decision to put McGowan in the bullpen to start 2006, despite a mostly unproven and occasionally injury-prone rotation, set back his development, but also opened the door for some other Toronto pitching prospects to get a foot in the big league door. McGowan's value could be as low as it's going to get, and now that he's starting again at Triple-A it's not unreasonable to think he might be the Jays' second-best starter by the time August rolls around. Mark him down as a top buy-low candidate.

79. Jeremy Sowers, SP, Cle: Sowers blew through three minor league levels in 2005, and his 1.27 ERA at Triple-A indicates he's got nothing to learn there, either. There's a big red flag though--his strikeout rate, which was 8.35 K/9 last year, has collapsed to 4.87. As a finesse lefty strikeouts won't be a huge part of his game, but he will likely have adjustments to make in the majors. Don't expect consistent success until at least 2007.

86. Joey Gathright, OF, TB: Gathright missed his chance to lay a claim to an outfield spot in Tampa Bay while Rocco Baldelli was out. He's becoming the poster boy for why major league hitters need at least a little power to survive; the walks Gathright draws in the minors disappear in the majors, as pitchers dare him to hurt them with his bat. It might be time to stop dreaming of 50-steal seasons from him.

87. Edison Volquez, SP, Tex: As befits the 'V' in 'DVD,' Volquez's performance in 2006 lies firmly in between those of his rotation-mates. His control is still an issue (5.15 BB/9) although less so than with Thomas Diamond, and like both Diamond and John Danks he's put together an impressive strikeout rate (9.52 K/9). He's the least polished of the three, though, so unless he shows dramatic second half improvement he should end up being third in line for a shot at the majors.

88. Adam Miller, SP, Cle: Miller rebounded from the elbow problems that have dogged him to post more than respectable numbers in his first exposure to Double-A. Elbow troubles are usually scary, but risk also helps to suppress his price tag, and if Miller keeps progressing he could be a huge bargain in 2007.

91. Dustin Pedroia, SS/2B, Bos: He still appears to have limited fantasy upside, with just seven home runs and one stolen base in his first 400+ at bats at Triple-A, but 'scrappy' guys like Pedroia can end up being better on the main stage than they ever seemed in the minors. With Hanley Ramirez looking like one that got away, there will be some organizational pressure to give Pedroia every chance--look for him to challenge either or both incumbent middle infielders next spring.

95. Thomas Diamond, SP, Tex: The Rangers' DVD trio have not quite lived up to their billing so far in 2006 with Diamond being the most erratic, cranking up the strikeouts (10.93 K/9 at Double-A) while struggling with his control (6.07 BB/9) as though he were aiming to be the next Nolan Ryan rather than the next Roger Clemens. If at any point he starts to find the strike zone with more regularity, he could find himself in the majors in a heartbeat. His upside makes him worth a little patience.

96. Erick Aybar, SS/2B, LAA: The promotion of Howie Kendrick over him early in the season makes it clear where Aybar stands on the Angels' depth chart, and in their future plans. As with Casey Kotchman, it's probably time for GM Bill Stoneman to convert his 'excess' resources into more useful assets. Aybar's blend of batting average and speed could make him valuable in fantasy baseball--provided he can get enough playing time to capitalize on his skill set.

99. Wes Bankston, 3B/1B, TB: If there's a pattern with Devil Ray hitting prospects, it's that the organization never really seems to know what to do with them. Bankston is a perfect example--rather than letting him work his way up the ladder as their first baseman of the future following a perfectly acceptable 2005, Tampa decided to make him repeat Double-A so that he could learn to play third base, a position he'd never played before. The early result: an oblique strain, and a 50-point drop in his ISO. If Bankston can avoid the mind games that have slowed the progress of Delmon Young and BJ Upton (among others) he could squeeze his way into the big league picture in 2007, but that has to be considered a big 'if' at the moment.

Erik Siegrist is a senior beat writer for RotoWire, covering the Marlins and Nationals. He can be reached here.

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